ST. LOUIS — The same game, a big Toronto Maple Leafs comeback, but two views on what ultimately became an overtime loss to the NHL’s hottest team.
“We can’t be happy with that,” said Mitchell Marner. “If we played the whole 60 like we did in the second and third, I thought we could have won this game. It’s nice coming back with one [point] at least but this was a game I think we could have gotten two from.”
“We battled back after the first part of the game,” teammate Frederik Andersen said moments later. “I thought we weren’t really there, but we figured out that we wanted to compete with these guys… Unfortunately, we didn’t get the last straw there in overtime, but I’m proud of the way we battled back.”
Both opinions had merit after a 3-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues on a slushy Tuesday night in the Midwest. It all depended on where you stood.
This was a game the Leafs had built up internally — coming at the end of a six-game, cross-continent road trip against an opponent riding a 10-game win streak. Mike Babcock had said: “I think it’s so important for our team to play in this game, to be involved in it.”
That forced William Nylander into the middle of a line flanked by Andreas Johnsson and Connor Brown. They played well.
The comeback came after some strong work from John Tavares and Zach Hyman — with Hyman’s centring pass accidentally being knocked by Blues defenceman Joel Edmundson into his own goal — followed by Auston Matthews establishing position at the top of the crease to make it 2-2 on the next shift.
“A big key for us to begin with was just getting on the inside,” said Matthews. “They’re a big team, they keep you on the outside and once we did that we started to get more and more chances and scored some goals and battled back.”
This was a tough opponent for a skilled team that many observers believe should be in the market for a rugged winger at the trade deadline. For the last 40 minutes, anyways, the Maple Leafs dispelled that working theory.
Toronto controlled 54 per cent of the even-strength shot attempts and split the scoring chances. Playing down a centre and on the road, they didn’t get pushed outside against a strong defence corps that has four players standing six-foot-four or above.
Absent a beautiful Ryan O’Reilly goal in overtime following a Marner turnover, they could have left here with two points.
“They had their way with us in the first,” said Marner. “We came in [the dressing room] and talked about how we need to be a lot better and help Fred out more and how we’ve got to get on their D-men a lot more. I think in the second, our whole goal was making sure we’re coming back, talking to our [defence], getting the puck in our hands as quick as possible and breaking out a lot quicker.
“As soon as we did that, I thought we had success.”
It was a fair road trip, all things considered.
They finished 3-2-1 and only had one poor outing — Saturday night in Arizona. But it’s clear this group is aiming to be more than it has been to now. We are approaching the stretch drive and the Leafs are starting to demand a little bit more from themselves.
“I mean the game’s so simple,” said Babcock. “If you work hard, you get rewarded, and if you don’t work hard enough, you don’t. When you’re playing real good teams you’ve got to be ready to go right at the start. Tonight we weren’t at their level at the start and in the end it probably cost us a point.
“But I like a lot of things we did today. A big step for our team.”