Maple Leafs fighting frustration as blown leads and losses pile up

The Edmonton Oilers set a franchise record with their 11th straight win as Evan Bouchard and Ryan McLeod both chipped in with a goal and an assist to help lift them over the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2.

EDMONTON — Mitch Marner believes this is only a blip, a four-game hiccup interrupting the 82-game marathon.

Yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs have lost four consecutive games in which they held a lead.

Yes, the past three of those disappointments have been at the hand of third-period daggers that have robbed overtime’s favourite team of so much as a loser’s point for its effort.

But within these losses are pinged posts and missed chances and some strong defensive sequences. And, hey, they must be doing something right to seize these leads in the first place.

“We’re a great hockey team. And we gotta ignore what everyone else says. We know we’re a great hockey team. We show up every night. I mean, this last four games that we’ve had leads, we’ve played some awesome hockey, some great hockey,” an admittedly “pissed off” Marner said, minutes after Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers.

“Stuff goes your way. Sometimes stuff doesn’t. So, for us, we just can’t get frustrated at each other. We know we’re doing the right things. It’s going to come, so stay patient with it. Don’t let anything outside of us frustrate us or get us angry. Like, just gotta do what we do.”

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A Maple Leafs group that dresses a handful of star players in their prime and entered this season with Stanley Cup aspirations suddenly finds itself closer to a wild-card spot than earning home ice in the playoffs.

Toronto now has just as many losses (21, eight in extra time) as wins (21), and the same number of wins in regulation as losses in regulation (13).

So, we ask Marner, a member of the leadership core, if frustration is seeping into the dressing room early in this critical swing through Western Canada.

“No,” he states. “But I think a lot of people on the outside are trying to do that. So, it’s how it goes. For us, we know we’re doing right things. Again tonight, we did a lot of right things, a lot of good things. That’s why it sucks when it slips away like this.”

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Whether it’s an us-against-the-world mentality or a blame-the-bad-bounces press conference, the Leafs are free to lean on whatever rallying point they wish as Florida and Boston pull away in an Atlantic Division race they intended to be in the thick of here.

To be clear, Toronto wasn’t outclassed by the hottest team in hockey — the Oilers have won 11 in a row — but for a club whose identity is score four or five and dare the other guys to catch up, asking this rather mediocre defensive group to grind out 2-1 wins is proving too great a request.

“Once again, you don’t find a way to win a game when you’ve got the lead. And that burns here, especially on a night like this where I thought our guys played a really good hockey game, played very hard,” said coach Sheldon Keefe, visibly and audibly upset with the lack of results.

“Ultimately, when you’re not scoring like we aren’t scoring here in this little stretch, you gotta find ways to win 2-1. And that’s tough to do, especially in this building against that team.”

That team dug itself a 2-0 hole when Marner and Auston Matthews connected for a beautiful give-and-go on the first shot of the game and all-star Morgan Rielly activated for a nice finish midway through the second.

A surprise Leon Draisaitl backhander spoiled Martin Jones’ blank sheet late in the second. Derek Ryan buried a slot shot with Keefe’s all-offence third line on the ice to tie it. Then Ryan McLeod scored the winner with 3:05 to play and Toronto’s best players exhausted off an icing. (Evan Bouchard tacked on the longest, slowest empty-netter you’ll see all year.)

“The difference is executing on one play at the end of the game,” Jones said. “They did. We didn’t.”

We’ve reached the point where Keefe and the Leafs won’t pretend they’re capable of restricting opponents to a couple goals with any sort of regularity. As currently constructed, they know their only path to success is to outscore.

The coach ran through Tuesday’s near misses: Tyler Bertuzzi’s missed tap-in, Pontus Holmberg’s stopped one-timer, and William Nylander hitting iron on a breakaway.

“We play that game over, we’re gonna score four or five a lot of nights,” Keefe said.

“So, while the story will be us giving up leads, to me the story is more an inability to execute on the scoring chances and grow our lead and pull away and take away the will of the other team.”

The story is blown leads because, however you slice it, teams that go on deep playoff runs lock up multi-goal advantages. They turn them into victories.

And we’re seeing a concerning trend take shape.

“Well, it’s been, like, eight days. It’s been, like, eight days. Like, that’s the trend? Eight days? A week before that, we won four in a row. Got leads early, took care of them, took care the game, played mature against Anaheim, San Jose. Played a great game against the L.A. Kings. That’s, like, a week ago,” Keefe defended.

“We can continue to grow but continue to show belief in the guys. Because we play like we did tonight, a lot of nights the puck’s gonna go into a bunch for us, and we’re gonna leave feeling pretty good.”

Fox’s Fast Five

• Keefe and the Leafs video squad’s accuracy when it comes to offside challenges remains on point.

But, man, did Zach Hyman ever not score one of the prettiest non-goals you’ll see:

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• Hölmberg, who failed to make the cut out of training camp, isn’t coming off the top line anytime soon. A pair of helpers in Edmonton gives one of Marner’s favourite NHLers six points in six games.

“He took a really big step from the other night,” Matthews encourages. “Just trying to encourage him to just play his game and not necessarily defer [to us], because he’s an incredible player with great skill and extremely smart, high IQ. So just encouraging him to go and do his thing and make plays and just play his game.”

Never hurts to have the endorsement of the Rocket Richard leader when you’re looking to increase your ice time.

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• John Tavares’s five-game point drought marks his longest as a Maple Leaf.

• Ex-Leaf Connor Brown is 33 games into his Oilers tenure and is still searching for his first goal. He doesn’t have one since 2021-22 with Ottawa. Also: He’s minus-10 and costing Edmonton $4 million. Yikes.

• Nylander ripped a game-high six shots but has now been held pointless in four of the five games since signing his $92-million extension.

“I played against Nylander even as kids, and he was amazing back then,” McDavid says. “His skill level is just through the roof. Seems like he’s determined, and obviously deserves that contract he signed.”

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