ELMONT, N.Y. — The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t had too many burn-the-tape games this season. And early in the third period Tuesday night against the New York Islanders, it still seemed like the Maple Leafs might find a way to pull a point or two out of a tough road game.
But after another critical mistake with the puck, the Maple Leafs unravelled and wound up taking it on the chin to the tune of a 7-2 loss at UBS Arena.
The Maple Leafs were by no means outclassed by the Islanders — at least, not for the majority of the game — but a series of bobbles and miscues cost them dearly. Timothy Liljegren put one on a tee for Hudson Fasching; Zach Aston-Reese whiffed on an easy clear; heck, even Mitch Marner — just seconds after he bombed one home to bring the Maple Leafs within a goal early in the third period — put a pass in Morgan Rielly’s skates at the Islanders blue line that wound up in their net moments later.
And yet, after watching all that, Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said he was less troubled by his team’s defensive effort than he was by its inability to make life more difficult on Islanders star goalie Ilya Sorokin.
“We made some mistakes, obviously,” Keefe said. “You know, gave them some pucks and [had] some trouble breaking out. Through two periods, I thought we were playing fine. The issue through two periods — and really the whole game — is you don’t get enough offence. So that to me — [even] as we gave up six tonight — it’s the offensive piece I’m a little more concerned with.”
It’s not that the Maple Leafs didn’t get their chances. Erik Gustafsson was robbed on a save-of-the-year candidate from Ilya Sorokin in the first; Marner and Auston Matthews both had great looks in that period, too. But Keefe, sounding very much like a coach who wants his team to get conditioned to scoring playoff-style goals, said it’s all about having bodies driving in the middle of the ice and mucking up that crease area a bit more.
“We had some really good looks, obviously the goalie made really great saves,” Keefe said. “But consistently, we didn’t challenge enough to the inside. We had the puck a lot tonight in the offensive zone. That was not an issue. I thought, at times, we were just over-passing and trying to create the perfect shot, which is not how you score on this guy.”
One guy Keefe singled out recently for not having his engine fully revved is William Nylander. Although the Swede went a fourth straight game without a point, Keefe thought No. 88 looked much more like himself against New York.
“I thought he carried the puck very well, transported it very well and looked a lot like the guy we’ve seen all season,” he said.
While this one got away in the back half of the third — goal No. 5 came after a clearing attempt by Samsonov hit the referee; No. 6 was an early empty-netter as Keefe pulled strings to try to give his team some life — there were two occasions where it’s fair to wonder what may have happened had things gone Toronto’s way.
The first was when Gustafsson was robbed not long after Sam Lafferty — driving the net in a fashion Keefe would have liked to see more of from his charges, in fact — opened the scoring with his first goal in 10 games with Toronto. Marner hit Gustafsson — who’d snuck in from the point — with a seam pass through the middle of the ice. Gustafsson calmly gathered the puck and whipped a shot on goal that seemed sure to be his first as a Leaf when it left his blade. But Sorokin flashed to his right, stuck out the paddle of his stick and made a save so loud with his twig it sounded more like a hard single up the middle off a 95 mph pitch than a goalie thwarting a shooter.
Toronto still came out of the first intermission up one, but 28 seconds into the middle frame, Zach Parise went unmarked by Jake McCabe at the side of the net during a run of a four-on-four play and tapped home an easy one-timer to square the game. Then, the Islanders jumped ahead when Liljegren heeled a pass when he had all day to make a play in the defensive zone. Fasching was the beneficiary, and he made good by making a perfect shot past Ilya Samsonov on the glove side.
“Just a mistake that happens sometimes,” Liljegren said after the game. “I mean, I had a lot of time with the puck. Obviously, didn’t make a good play, but stuff like that’s going to happen.”
Another poor clearing attempt led to Cal Clutterbuck making it 3-1 after 40 minutes, yet there the Leafs were, clawing back to within one when Marner fired home his fifth goal in his past seven game, one-timing a feed from Matthews home 3:29 into the third.
But just moments later, No. 16 was winding his way toward the Islanders’ end and sent a neutral zone pass right into the feet of Rielly. Forty-four seconds after Toronto had narrowed the gap, it was a two-goal game again as Clutterbuck grabbed the loose puck, charged into the Maple Leafs zone and whipped one past Samsonov.
“That’s a play I’ve got to own up to and do better with,” Marner said. “Comes back to cost you and it sucks.”
Yes, it was tough to see the Buds making any more noise at that point as chesty Islanders fans got rocking and, predictably, started picking on their favourite Toronto whipping boy, shouting “We don’t need you!” at former Islanders captain John Tavares. Even without that lingering emotion, there’s a charge around this New York squad as it fights for every point in an attempt to pin down one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
“Credit to the Islanders, they competed hard,” Keefe said. “It’s very evident that this game was very important to them. But we didn’t do enough to take advantage of some of the puck time we had.
“The mistakes that we made, they made count and the mistakes they made, we didn’t make them pay for.”