RALEIGH, N.C. – New lines, same result.
Faith in the Toronto Maple Leafs and faith within the Toronto Maple Leafs is getting tested, as the group followed up its most lopsided loss in nearly five years with another decisive L.
Another night when a team built to score simply couldn’t do it enough.
“We got a sense of what a Stanley Cup–contending team looks and feels like," Sheldon Keefe said.
“That's the hardest game we've played in this season by a wide margin in terms of the pressure, in terms of how difficult it is, in terms of how little time you have with the puck.”
The coach was encouraged by his group’s effort in comparison to Saturday’s no-show — but clearly there’s another level or three to reach.
“Unfortunately, it's still not high enough. You're playing against the Carolina Hurricanes. They set the standard, really, in the league in that regard," Keefe said. “Playing on the road here in Carolina, it's a different animal. Something that our team hasn't really felt in quite a while. So requires a lot more from you, and it's eye-opening.”
Although the Leafs are doing their best to downplay a sloppy and uninspired week of hockey, tangible signs of a turnaround are hard to come by following a 4-1 Carolina victory.
"I think that noise and that panic from the outside can't shake us — because there's no reason it should. It's still early, and we're still trying to figure out our game,” Auston Matthews said.
“Within the room, we realize, obviously, that we need to play better. But at the same time, it's not like the end all, be all. Like, it's not the end of the world right now.”
Toronto is fighting the narrative, because how does one write a positive story right now? With a group whose very identity is its high-powered offence yet who has slunk to 29th in the NHL in that category, averaging a paltry 1.86 goals per game? With a 26th-ranked power-play that’s drier than melba toast?
If we’re scrounging for a silver lining, it’s that Matthews himself is on the board, four games after returning from wrist surgery.
“Hopefully he lets me sneak in one or two past him,” Matthews said the morning before facing friend-for-life Andersen.
And it only took three minutes and 25 seconds for Andersen to grant Matthews’ wish.
Ethan Bear lost the big centreman behind the net, and Matthews whipped a wraparound past Andersen for his first on the year and 200th in just 338 games, becoming the second-fastest Leaf to reach that plateau.
As Keefe scrambled all four of his lines in search of any offensive spark, Michael Bunting and William Nylander were promoted to Matthews’ wings. The trio looked dangerous early, with a nice Bunting forecheck helping to get the puck on Matthews’ blade.
“We’ve actually been spending a lot of time together off the ice. So hopefully that can kind of translate on the ice as far as chemistry goes,” Matthews said of Scarborough’s finest. “He's always on the puck. He's smart. He makes plays.”
Carolina did what strong teams do. They responded.
The Canes buzzed back with prime scoring chances. Andrei Svechnikov hit a double-post off a sky-high alley-oop pass. Vincent Trocheck whiffed on a clear breakaway. And Jack Campbell stoned Jesper Fast on a nicely executed 2-on-1.
Soon enough, the better club broke through.
Sebastian Aho tied the contest in Period 2 by deftly tipping an Ethan Bear point shot. Then fourth-liner Steven Lorentz outmuscled Rasmus Sandin for a loose puck in the slot and whipped the winner right through Campbell’s legs.
Immediately after killing off a Leafs power-play, the Canes scored their third unanswered. Jaccob Slavin undressed Mitch Marner at the blueline and fed Nino Niederreiter, who drove the net and slammed the puck home.
Marner hung his head.
“We gotta believe in one another, and everyone loves each other in this room. It’s such a close hockey team. And if any team were to do it — to get out of this rut we’re in — it's us,” Bunting said.
“It's all a matter of us believing in one another. And it starts in our room, not out there.”
The Maple Leafs carry their four-game losing skid into Chicago Wednesday in a showdown between two storied franchises digging themselves into early-season crises.
“The more that you lose, the worse it feels,” Justin Holl said. “So, it's gonna be very important for us to get back on the horse and get a big win.”
Fox’s Fast 5
• Svechnikov is soaring after signing his eight-year, $62-million extension in late August. He’s entered the season with a five-game point streak. His five goals and nine points put him top-10 leaguewide.
• Keefe acknowledged the slow start for his shutdown pair, Jake Muzzin (minus-7) and Justin Holl (minus-6): "Just two guys that haven't played at the level that we've come to expect from them. Those guys take on a lot of tough assignments and it is difficult for them. But we've come to expect them to thrive in that position, and it hasn't happened here yet."
• Some outsiders didn’t like the optics of Matthews and Andersen having dinner and watching NFL Red Zone together Sunday. Well, Petr Mrazek met up with some of his old mates on the off-day, too, including Svechnikov. Opposing players do this all the time, and with COVID restrictions loosened, it shouldn’t come as a shock.
• Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour on the endurance of Jason Spezza, whom he played against for seven seasons: “You got a veteran player who knows how to play and can skate. That's the one thing that’s never left him. He's got some confidence. The coach is playing him…. I think if his wheels weren't there, it’d be a different story. But his wheels are there, and that's why he's doing what he’s doing.”
• Those “bunch of jerks” Hurricanes continue to lean into their NHL troll persona. Monday they hosted EBUG David Ayres, who revved the opening siren.
"It's a great story, obviously, and happy for a guy like that to get some life out of it," said Brind'Amour. "It might be more [of a story] up there where you guys are [in Toronto] than down here."
Oh, it is, Rod. It is.