TORONTO — Even from their fresh perch atop the NHL standings, they can’t escape the tired old questions.
Have these Toronto Maple Leafs truly changed their spots?
Through 15 and two-thirds games of this shortened season, it was impossible to conclude anything other than they had based on the mountain of consistent, committed play. And then the last-place Ottawa Senators triggered an avalanche by turning a 5-1 deficit into Monday’s 6-5 overtime victory and the old doubts surfaced anew.
How could they not?
Ottawa entered the game eight wins and 16 points behind Toronto after just one month of the season. And in the entire 28-year history of the Senators franchise they had never won a game in which they trailed by four goals. Their lifetime record now stands at 1-237-3 in those situations.
“Just a couple careless plays and they were able to capitalize,” said Auston Matthews, who wasn’t responsible for any of them. “I think that’s a team that’s just not going to go away, they work hard the whole game. It doesn’t matter what the score is, they’re going to keep coming after you wave after wave. We’ve got to play their game.
“I think we just got a little lackadaisical and I think they challenged us and we didn’t really respond when they did get those chances.
“We definitely blew this one, for sure.”
It happened in almost comical fashion, depending on your sense of humour and where your Battle of Ontario allegiances lie.
Ottawa roared back with a 4-on-5 goal by Nick Paul, a 5-on-5 goal where Artyom Zub jumped out of the penalty box and was sprung for a breakaway, a 5-on-5 goal from Connor Brown just as a Senators power play was expiring, a 6-on-5 goal from Evgenii Dadonov with goaltender Marcus Hogberg on the bench and then won it on Dadonov’s 3-on-3 overtime breakaway.
What this was not, it should be noted, was a case where the Leafs went completely into a shell and tried to meekly nurse home a big lead. They actually outshot Ottawa 12-10 in a third period that started with them ahead 5-2 and ended with a brief intermission before overtime.
Yeah, it was a strange night.
“How we were playing was just discouraging and definitely a step back for us,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “Whether we won the game today or not, I mean I said after the second period it’s as bad as I’ve felt about a 5-2 lead probably that I’ve ever had. We had a talk as a team about cleaning things up for the third period.
“I thought we were in the right frame of mind. I actually didn’t mind our third period in terms of how we played at even strength, but you give up a short-handed goal and then you give up a four-minute power play with a careless high-stick, it gives them a chance to stay in the game.”
There’ve been some puck management issues creeping into the team’s game, according to Keefe, which certainly didn’t help matters while squandering a third-period lead and losing 2-1 to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night.
Among the areas of emphasis he’s stressed recently with his players is situational awareness — understanding what play and what amount of risk should be taken on depending where exactly the game is at.
In light of that and the Senators comeback that followed, it made a defensive zone turnover by captain John Tavares even more painful. He coughed up the puck to Austin Watson and saw Paul score short-handed with nine seconds to play in the middle period to make it 5-2.
The Leafs were on that same power play in the first minute of the third when Joe Thornton’s attempted pass to Travis Boyd in the slot was tipped away by Brown and fed up to Zub as he exited the penalty box.
Still, it was only 5-3 after his first NHL goal.
But Zach Hyman soon took a double-minor for high-sticking Thomas Chabot and Brown got it back to 5-4 as the penalty ended. It didn’t help that penalty killer Jimmy Vesey was in the process of retrieving a new stick from the bench after his was broken.
Dadonov displayed lovely hand-eye by batting the tying goal out of the air with a backhand and actually blocked a Morgan Rielly shot that appeared destined to secure a Leafs victory in overtime moments before beating Frederik Andersen himself.
“Credit to them: They were resilient, they stayed right with it,” Keefe said of the Senators. “But everything they got today we gave them.”
What it does to their psyche is of most interest now.
The Leafs actually increased their North Division lead with the loser point and still have a strong 11-3-2 record, so there’s no pressure to be found there. But they have also been building towards becoming a team that can lock things down and the Sens smashed right through the gates.
“New day tomorrow,” said Thornton, signed in part to help calm the choppy waters beside Lake Ontario.
“We’re playing so much. You’ve got to have a short memory, I think, in this league and especially this season with the games that just come back to back to back on you,” added Matthews. “I mean we’ve got these guys two more times this week.
“We’ll be ready on Wednesday.”