Maple Leafs burn themselves with game management and turnovers in OT loss

Reilly Smith scored a short-handed goal in the third period and buried the OT game-winner to lift the Vegas Golden Knights to a 4-3 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

TORONTO — Within all the beautiful chaos and wonderful randomness that transpires over the course of every mistake-filled hockey game, certain moments — decisions, really — are within a player’s control.

When to make a line change. When to pinch. When to dump a puck to safety.

Rallying from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits Tuesday to the hottest team in hockey, and correcting some egregious gaffes along the way, the Toronto Maple Leafs had a 3-2 lead midway through the third period.

Toronto’s most experienced and most talented people were on the ice, operating on the top power-play unit. And after being forced to retreat and break out into the Vegas Golden Knights‘ zone one too many times for their coach’s liking, they decided to extend their shift.

To go hunting for cookies.

Instead, tired legs and sloppy sticks gave way to yet another counterattack for the Knights — this one shorthanded, with Reilly Smith making good on a 2-on-1 sprint: 

In a blink, a scrappy if uneven comeback victory unravelled into another Grade-A chance on a third-string goalie.  

A blown lead.

And, less than nine minutes later, a 4-3 overtime loss.

Morgan Rielly understood what went wrong. Mitch Marner, too, admitting the first unit should’ve stolen a peek at the clock and the scoreboard, and changed for fresh legs.

Hockey 101.

“You want to be an elite team? You need to be elite in managing games. You gotta close that game out,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said.

“Those are all our leaders on the ice. We gotta manage that better. As coaches, we gotta help them be accountable to that. It was very clear that they knew it in the moment, both in the line change or if you are going to stay out, you gotta do the job.”

Keefe was unequivocal that his big boys needed to change in that moment — and it sapped Toronto of a point it might need down the road.

“We’ve talked to them about that. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to go through something like that to have that reminder,” Keefe said. “I’m confident that won’t happen again.”

Perhaps some readers find this criticism too fine.

The Maple Leafs, after all, have gathered seven of eight points since returning from their concerning West Coast swing. They’ve hung tight with three division leaders — Boston, Carolina, Vegas — in a testy span of four nights. And they’re doing all of this with a projected Marlies netminder, Erik Källgren, patrolling the blue paint.

A healthy Timothy Liljegren, who sniped two goals on Logan Thompson in the OT loss, has injected balance and stability to a blueline in disarray. The super duo of Auston Matthews and Marner is showing more flashes of game-breaking ability. And, hey, the Leafs did outshoot the Knights, 31-20.

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But we’re trying to grade these Maple Leafs as a group designed to contend in rugged playoff series against organized, high-end opponents.

So, through that lens, the quality of opportunities Toronto gave its visitors is cause for worry. 

Källgren faced five breakaways, Smith freezing the clock with something pretty on the final one.

“Didn’t see a lot of shots. When they came, it was on some pretty good chances,” Källgren said. “Those chances, they kinda come out of nowhere. It’s hard.”

With 17 (!) giveaways Tuesday — too many leading to what Keefe terms “freebie” goals — Toronto is now up to 146 on the season, third most in the league.

“It’s turnovers. Every one of (Vegas’s goals), we had the puck. It’s not even a defensive thing. You can’t defend when we give the other team the puck in bad spots, and they can counter with a ton of speed,” Keefe said.

The only Eastern Conference team handing more pucks over than Toronto these days is Montreal, an organization dressing a young, rebuilding lineup. 

Poor decision-making is understandable there; the Canadiens understand there will be growing pains.

The rope is tighter in a city trying to sharpen postseason habits, preparing to battle with the best.

Sloppy lead management is a recipe for disaster come spring, when every competitor is punishing and opportunistic.

“It’s a counter game. It’s a transition game. That’s where a lot of offence is in the league. When a team makes a mistake, you go the other way,” Keefe said.

“Tough stretch with three games in four nights against three elite teams. Five out of six points feels good. We came a long way in this little stretch. 

“But tonight is a sign we still have a ways to go in terms of managing the game, because that should be six points.”

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Fox’s Fast 5

Michael Bunting broke out for 63 points in his maiden voyage for Toronto last season. In 2022-23, he’s on pace for just 35. At 5-on-5, he tied some guy named Connor McDavid for sixth overall with 58 points. He’s also taking more penalties.

All this in a pressurized UFA contract year.

On Tuesday, he was demoted from the top line to the third unit, alongside Calle Järnkrok and Pierre Engvall.

“Bunts is still competing his ass off,” Keefe said. “He’s involved in everything. It’s not that part of it. It just hasn’t come together both for he and his linemates, so a little bit a change in the chemistry here today.”

Keefe reminds us that Bunting didn’t secure a role on Matthews’ and Marner’s left wing until deeper in his rookie season — and that a reset could help the shift disturber rediscover his own game.

“Taking a little bit of a step back here and try to give him that opportunity to just focus on himself. Maybe a little bit of a lighter load in terms of matchups and responsibility,” Keefe said. “We’ve done this previously this season, and it didn’t last long before we moved him back. I suspect it will be similar.” 

• Pierre Engvall’s decision-making and engagement leaves the viewer wanting more. 

Through his first 12 games, he had a total of three giveaways. He had another three in his 13 and a half minutes of work Tuesday. He didn’t register a hit.

Jack Eichel has scored 14 goals in his past 14 games in Toronto. He leads all Knights with 15 points and a plus-10.

• The Marlies released veteran defenceman Danny DeKeyser from his AHL tryout. He scored once in three games but has not played since Oct. 26 due to injury. 

The undrafted DeKeyser enjoyed a solid 547-game career with the Red Wings. After being unable to make good on NHL and AHL tryout bids this autumn, one wonders where the 32-year-old goes from here.

• If the Stanley Cup tournament was starting today, I’d pick the Vegas Golden Knights to win the thing.

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