Maple Leafs’ blue-line woes go from bad to worse in fiery loss to Senators

The Hockey Night in Canada panel discussed what kind of punishment Morgan Rielly could receive for his cross-check on Ridly Greig.

The first 59 minutes of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ messy, fiery Saturday-night tilt were regrettable enough. But it was what transpired in the final minute of the club’s loss to the Ottawa Senators that will truly leave them licking their wounds as they pack up and head home.

After an uneven effort under the Canadian Tire Centre lights left the visitors down a goal with seconds remaining on the clock, the final play of the night sent the blue-and-white’s frustration finally bubbling over. It started in the Senators’ zone, with a late push from the Maple Leafs cut short by an ill-fated pass from the blue line. The puck wound up on Ridly Greig’s stick, the young Senator breaking free and heading down the ice towards an empty Maple Leafs net, with acres of space ahead of him. 

With only a handful of seconds left on the clock, the 21-year-old wound up and launched a slapper into the open cage, putting an exclamation mark on the Senators’ 5-3 win — one that sealed the Battle of Ontario season series win, too. The next thing he knew, Greig was on the ice, chased down by Morgan Rielly, who made his feelings on the emphatic finish clear by way of a cross-check to the head. Scrums ensued, the clock wound down, the buzzer sounded.

And now, the Maple Leafs leave Ottawa not only having left valuable points on the board, but with the question of whether they’ll have to navigate life without their star defenceman for a spell, should the league deem Rielly’s retaliation worthy of supplemental discipline.

“I think the league will look at it. I think it’s not a hockey play,” Senators head coach Jacques Martin told the media once the final buzzer had sounded. “I don’t know if it’s frustration or something, but it’s not part of the game.”

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That the retaliation came in response to Greig’s decision to score in the particular manner he chose didn’t sway Martin.

“I mean, he puts the puck in the net,” said the Senators coach. “Whether he pushes it or he shoots it, that shouldn’t matter.”

His counterpart, Sheldon Keefe, didn’t see it the same way. Asked for his thoughts on Rielly’s on-ice reaction to Greig’s goal, the Maple Leafs coach stood behind his veteran.

“I thought it was appropriate,” a perturbed Keefe said of Rielly’s actions post-game. “Their player has the right to do what he wants in that moment, and our players have the right to react. That’s the emotion of the game, and that’s the way it goes.”

“It’s just a stupid thing to do by their guy there at the end,” added netminder Martin Jones.

“We obviously didn’t like the result on the empty-netter, so we’re going to stick together and stand our ground when necessary,” said John Tavares.

The captain was asked if he’s ever seen someone take a slap shot into an empty net before: “I haven’t.”

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Still, late-game chaos aside, the Maple Leafs have bigger issues to sort out. Tops among those, surely, is the lacklustre play of the team’s blue line of late.

Already a worry coming into the night — fuelling ongoing speculation regarding potential reinforcements to be brought in by GM Brad Treliving — the Maple Leafs’ defence corps left more to be desired once again in this one. Rewind the tape, and you’ll see the mishaps dotted throughout.

On the Senators’ first goal of the night, to send the teams into the first intermission tied 1-1, there was Rielly with a neutral-zone giveaway on a pass to Mitch Marner, sending Ottawa back into Toronto’s zone on a 3-on-1. Jones made the first save, but the ensuing scramble led to a goal from Claude Giroux.

On Ottawa’s second, early in the middle frame, there was William Lagesson, chipping the puck into the offensive zone and turning it over, only to see the Sens come right back again, capitalize on him being out of position, and pad their lead courtesy of a Vladimir Tarasenko tally.

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Look back at Ottawa’s third, and you’ll see Toronto losing the puck behind their own net — albeit while seemingly taking a stick to the face that went uncalled — before an ensuing point shot made its way past Jones. And on the fourth, yet another puck chipped haphazardly into the neutral zone to no one, this time by Simon Benoit, and another instance of the Senators picking it up, walking in and adding to their lead.

“We gave up too much in transition,” Keefe said of his team’s defensive issues post-game. “That’s what they do very well — probably better than any team in the NHL. We fed into that. I thought that we were two minutes away from a pretty clean first period on the road, and just a completely egregious play at the end of the first period there to lead to their first goal.

“And that’s our best people — in the last two minutes of the first period, our best people I thought let us down there. It changes the momentum of the game.”

With the Maple Leafs faithful already clamouring for Toronto’s front office to bring in some back-end help, the club now must wait to see if the situation becomes more urgent, should Rielly be dealt a suspension.

Blue-line woes aside, though, there was plenty to worry about on the other side of the sheet too.

While the club found some secondary scoring from Max Domi — who potted a goal and had another called off — it was still largely Toronto’s top line which carried play for the visitors. That lead trio of Auston Matthews, Marner and Matthew Knies seemed to wreak havoc every time they touched the ice, Matthews and Knies supplying two of the three goals in this one.

But the rest of the Maple Leafs attack had little to show for its effort — even when the chances came, as was the case for Tavares, who found himself with three quality looks in the first period, when his side had the chance to build up an all-important early lead, but finished none of them.

“We missed a ton of chances,” Keefe said simply, after the loss was in the books. “We could’ve probably scored more than we did tonight. We didn’t, so we lose the game.”

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