Maple Leafs’ character under microscope in California: ‘We lost confidence a little bit’

Anze Kopitar picked up two assists and Kevin Fiala collected a goal as part of his two-point night while Gabriel Vilardi scored the game-winner as the Los Angeles Kings defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2.

LOS ANGELES – An October meeting with the dead-last Anaheim Ducks has no business feeling so important, so desperate.

Yet here are the Toronto Maple Leafs (4-4-1), left scrounging Sunday for a few scraps in the standings and a morsel of momentum against a 1-6-1 franchise fantasizing about Connor Bedard.

“We lost confidence a little bit last three games,” said goalie Ilya Samsonov, after giving up his most goals as a Leaf in Saturday’s 4-2 loss to the L.A. Kings in prime time.

“We don’t have more smile in the locker room.”

No, they do not.

There were some averted eyes and lowered heads postgame in Arena’s visitors’ quarters.

Following last weekend’s emotional win in Winnipeg, the Leafs are at risk of spending four nights in Las Vegas plus four more in California with nothing more than an OT point and a tan to show for it.

“This is a great opportunity for our team to prove our character, to compete, and to respond tomorrow night,” stated Morgan Rielly.

Strong words from the longest-serving member of a core whose lulls are taking a toll on loyalty.

How does Rielly figure these disconnected Maple Leafs dig their way out of a stretch in which their special teams, defensive efficiency, 5-on-5 scoring and goaltending depth has all come under scrutiny?

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“You keep confident. You keep working. You believe in your structure. You believe in your system. You believe in your teammates and the group that we have here,” Rielly said. “And that’s what we’re gonna do.”

Withstanding an aggressive opening flourish from the home side, which came out blinding the visitors with its speed if not its metallic-silver headgear, Toronto scored first — for the first time in seven outings.

Yet playing with a lead doesn’t always mean building it.

The Kings pounced back during a lopsided second period with three unanswered goals, two with a beleaguered Justin Holl serving time in the box.

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Pierre Engvall scored his first of the season, but he also had a brutal neutral-zone giveaway during a penalty kill shift that could’ve been solved with safe dump-in.

On the Day of the Dead, young Rasmus Sandin got eaten alive by a goal-hungry Kevin Fiala.

The Kings, like so many of the Maple Leafs’ opponents this season, were the club that wanted it more.

“The game is filled with all sorts of plays, and all sorts of things that are happening all the time. And you never know when your moment is the moment that makes a difference — either way, positively or negatively. So, you just try to encourage and push your team to be really good in each moment,” said Keefe. The coach was striking a softer tone with a fragile group.

And then: “While you’re trying to find yourself as a team, you can’t shoot yourself in the foot. I thought we did that here today on at least two of the goals.”

Forget the mistake-free game.

Toronto simply needs to show some semblance to the bunch that tore out with a franchise-best 115 points last season. That group could rally when down. It would punish you on special teams. And, above all, it could score at 5-on-5.

“Have we played to our capabilities yet? I don’t believe so,” John Tavares said.

Saturday was another night where Toronto’s vaunted offence mustered just one goal at even strength. They now rank a shocking — embarrassing? — 29th in goals per game.

Through nine games, the Leafs have been full value for their five losses, most of which have arrived at the hands of supposedly weaker rosters.

When things went sideways in the regular season, this core could snipe its way out of a jam. So, where did all the firepower go?

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“It’s a good question. I’m not too sure,” Rielly considered. “I do know whenever a team has a strength like that for multiple seasons in a row, your opponent will start to key on things [and] it becomes more difficult.

“For us, it’s just a matter of keeping the confidence, keeping the positivity, and just continuing to work. I don’t think anybody’s getting discouraged. I don’t think anybody expected to go 82-0.”

Granted. But on Sunday, everyone will certainly be expecting these Maple Leafs to go 1-0 in Anaheim. To show some character.

“We have to find a way to get a result here and get things feeling better,” Tavares said. “It’s good we get to go back at it tomorrow.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Tavares leads the Maple Leafs in goals (four), points (10) and face-off percentage (57.7%).

• Fashion show!

Toronto trotted out its Justin Bieber–designed alternate black-and-blue uniforms. When in L.A.

“They’re great. I think everybody really loves wearing them. It’s always nice to try something different,” said Auston Matthews, Bieber’s buddy.

“I’m sure he’ll be in the building tonight. So, looking forward to that. Always good to see him and get his support for the team.”

The Kings countered with their stunning Gretzky-era home whites and those hilariously shiny chrome domes for the game, and these purple beauties for warm-ups on Dia de los Muertos:

• In addition to a Dion Phaneuf cameo, it was good to see Jake Muzzin (and former King) join up with the Leafs in Los Angeles. First sight of one the injured players on this five-game road trip.

Muzzin is seeing a specialist in L.A.

• Bummed not to get a peek at young Kings Quinton Byfield (illness) and Brandt Clarke (scratch).

The next game Clarke — the eighth-overall draft choice of 2021 — plays will be his ninth. L.A. must then decide whether to burn a season of his entry-level deal or return him to the OHL Barrie Colts.

• Elliotte Friedman reports the Maple Leafs didn’t want to include a pick for right-shot defenceman Ethan Bear, who was traded from Carolina to Vancouver Friday for a fifth-rounder.

Remember: With Kyle Dubas maxed out at 50 NHL contracts, the GM must move a body out if he wishes to acquire a new one.

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