Overtime loss reinforces idea that Maple Leafs need help at centre

Auston Matthews scored twice to hit the 30-goal mark for the season but Andrew Shaw’s overtime winner gave the Canadiens a 3-2 win over the Maple Leafs.

TORONTO – Nazem Kadri and Auston Matthews had already played the first two breakneck overtime shifts for Mike Babcock.

So when the Toronto Maple Leafs coach surveyed his bench to determine who would take the next offensive zone draw, he sent winger Zach Hyman into the circle for just the 28th time all season rather than calling on depth centres Ben Smith or Frederik Gauthier.

Ten seconds and a lost faceoff later, the game was over.

Andrew Shaw got a step on Hyman and deked an over-aggressive Frederik Andersen to secure the Montreal Canadiens an entertaining 3-2 overtime victory on Saturday night.

“A tough mistake there at the end but those are parts of life,” said Babcock.

It wasn’t a sequence that warranted individual blame quite so much as it reinforced an idea that’s been running through the top levels of the organization for some time now: They could still use more help down the middle.

Babcock certainly made no secret of his feelings on the matter – “I think we have good depth in lots of spots, not as much at centre ice” – and now we wait to see if general manager Lou Lamoriello can line up a deal that makes sense ahead of Wednesday’s 3 p.m. ET trade deadline.

The thinking here is easy to understand.

As much as the Leafs still feel it necessary to closely guard their draft picks and prospects, they also believe it’s vital to give the youngest roster in the NHL an opportunity to grow through the experience of playing big games down the stretch.

This was unquestionably one of those, with the Habs recently exhibiting fragility and suddenly within reach at the top of the Atlantic Division.

Opportunity was in the air.

However, Toronto’s odds of securing a victory were diminished before the players even took the ice for warmups. That’s because third-line centre Tyler Bozak was made a late scratch, requiring both Smith and Gauthier to dress against Montreal.

“He just had a cut in his hand and got an infection,” Babcock said of Bozak. “That should be cleaned up – that just happened – that should be cleaned up and he should be [ready to play in San Jose on Tuesday].

“We were hoping on him tonight.”

Not only is Bozak the most successful faceoff man on the team at 56 per cent, but he’s also a right-handed shot. The offensive zone draw in overtime was on the right side of the ice – meaning that Bozak almost certainly would have been sent in for that draw against Tomas Plekanec had he been in the lineup.

Without him, Babcock’s options were grim. The Leafs fell five points behind the Habs as a result.

The odd man out here appears to be Smith, who has struggled with a 46.1 per cent faceoff win rate since returning from a broken hand on Feb. 2 and possesses the worst individual Corsi rating on the team.

Stream 56 Maple Leafs Games
Sign up for Sportsnet Now to get 56 Maple Leafs games plus every Hockey Night in Canada, Rogers Hometown Hockey and Scotiabank Wednesday Night Hockey game and the entire 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

He may still see a bit of action – either out of necessity or because he’s four games (and a one-year contract extension) away from satisfying the criteria needed for exposure in June’s expansion draft – but it’s clear the coach doesn’t trust him when the stakes get high.

On Saturday, the 28-year-old watched the final 6:04 in regulation and all 1:06 of overtime from the bench.

The Leafs still have 21 regular-season games left to play and are hoping for more in the playoffs. They are likely to endure additional injuries, and if they come at centre it might derail what has been an uplifting season to this point.

Management was reminded of that fact on a night where Matthews scored the 29th and 30th goals of his remarkable rookie season against Carey Price. The team around him played tight and controlled. Even newcomer Alexey Marchenko stepped up in place of injured defenceman Connor Carrick.

With the Air Canada Centre rocking, the Leafs had a chance to record a signature victory here.

“Two pretty big rivals and I thought we played a pretty outstanding game,” said Matthews.

“It was actually a lot of fun,” said Frederik Andersen, who stopped 25 shots. “I actually thought to myself at the start of the third [period] how fun it is. It just makes you appreciate it a lot more; it’s cool to be part of this rivalry.”

After Matthews saw an overtime breakaway bounce off the shaft of Price’s stick and stay out, the Leafs fell a centre short.

The hockey is tight and the playoff positions in the Atlantic Division are balancing on the razor’s edge. The margins are narrow.

“Turnovers,” said Hyman, when asked what made the difference. “And they capitalized on those turnovers. In games like this you win by just a little bit and we have to be better.”

A little outside help wouldn’t hurt.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.