TORONTO – There are 32 teams in the National Hockey League, and none of them have given away more pucks than the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The club’s 22nd turnover of the night and 211th of this young season directly resulted in Yegor Sharangovich’s clock-freezing game-winner and another tense postgame podium from a head coach who is visibly fed up with the freebies.
The Maple Leafs have become the NHL’s not-so-secret Santa Claus, handing out gifts left, right and centre.
“I thought the difference is that we beat ourselves at times and gave them free goals,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe after Thursday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils. “They didn’t beat themselves at all. That’s how you win 11 in a row. You don’t beat yourself.
“I am concerned about it.”
No doubt, bouts of puck mismanagement have been costly this season for a Leafs group that prides itself on puck possession and a high tempo.
But it would be disingenuous to pin the loss solely on self-inflicted wounds.
For one, the Devils are legit.
Their speed and relentless four-line attack pressed Toronto into its own zone for long stretches and forced the Leafs into making some of those errors.
New Jersey was full value in mounting its sixth comeback victory over its confidence-boosting 11-game win streak.
In fact, were it not for a second consecutive solid outing by Matt Murray, and a swift snipe by William Nylander with 2:09 remaining in regulation, the Leafs would not have saved a point out of this one.
At even-strength, the Devils held a 13-5 advantage in high-danger chances and generated 69 per cent of the game’s expected goals, per NaturalStatTrick.com.
“We just couldn’t generate anything, 5-on-5 especially,” Keefe said.
“They showed why they’re on such a tear right now,” Murray added. “It’s a great team that’s playing incredibly well. They don’t give you a whole lot, and they make your job tough.
“They were all over us, all over the ice.”
Part of that is young, fresh legs free from the burden of expectation and fuelled by this contagious run of W’s.
But there is a method to the fastness here, and it stems from how Jersey coach Lindy Ruff deploys his 12 trusted forwards.
All one must do is survey Thursday’s ice times to understand the depth.
Four forwards on Keefe’s Leafs logged more than 20:30 each (guess which ones). Not one Devils forward touched the 20-minute mark.
Conversely, Ruff’s least-used forward, Fabian Zetterlund, skated 11:42. Toronto had five forwards who saw less ice than Zetterlund.
Toronto has two forwards, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, among the top 20 in ice time leaguewide. New Jersey’s most-used forward, Nico Hischier, ranks 45th overall.
This conviction to roll all four lines keeps New Jersey’s horses fresh and everyone engaged. There is a palpable flow to the Devils attack that impresses.
On this night at least, Keefe’s bench couldn’t match the rhythm and relentlessness of the new kid on the eastern block.
“It’s more than just winning. There’s a lot of teams that have been winning, but they have been dominant statistically, virtually every category, offensively and defensively,” Keefe said. “They’re deep, they’re fast, they’re skilled, they’re long on defence, and they’ve been getting good goaltending.
“I looked at the way their lines are set up now. Their top four scorers at 5-on-5 are on four different lines. Miles Wood leads their team in 5-on-5 goals — he’s playing on the fourth line.
“Certainly, with the pace and the skill that they play at, it’s a challenge.”
The good news is the Maple Leafs won’t have to wait long for a chance to make good on that challenge as they visit New Jersey on Wednesday.
They have five days to tidy up the turnovers and hope the Devils’ remarkable heater hits the fritz.
The bad news is the Maple Leafs’ lack of depth may be a more difficult issue to solve than these giveaways.
Fox’s Fast 5
• Keefe said it was partly “a feel thing” to start John Tavares and Marner over Matthews and Nylander in 3-on-3 overtime. Tavares, Keefe noted, did not see the ice in the previous OT and he believed that duo was fresher.
Nylander was Toronto’s best forward all night. He and Matthews were the goal scorers. They had just salvaged a standings point with their last rush. That line was also the Leafs’ only one with positive underlying numbers in regulation.
They were feeling it — and should’ve started the fourth period. Toronto is now 1-4 in OT.
• The Devils roll out of Toronto on pace for the greatest shot differential (+12.3 per game) since the league began tracking the statistic.
The 1974-75 Buffalo Sabres are the record holders in the category (+10.9).
• Marner extended his point streak to 11 games (3-12–15), the NHL’s longest active streak and second-longest of his career. He ripped off a 13-gamer last season.
• Jake Muzzin (neck) could be seen watching Thursday’s morning skate from the not-so-fun side of the boards.
“We think, because of his experience not just as a member of our team here but his experience previously winning in L.A., he can still bring a lot to our team,” GM Kyle Dubas says. “We are fortunate to have him and have him around.”
“He’s been awesome around the rink still,” Marner adds. “He’s still bringing that positivity regardless of the news that he’s getting.”
Some nice insight here from Maple Leafs wrestling belt supplier Edge on the type of injury Muzzin is dealing with:
• What can a healthy Nick Robertson – who’s now been sidelined for eight of Toronto’s 18 games — do to hop back in the lineup?
“At this point, it’s probably more about what others don’t do,” Keefe said.
The coach wants to give callup Pontus Holmberg, a natural centreman, some run here because it allows Pierre Engvall to slide to the wing. And Denis Malgin — Robertson’s original lineup competition — has earned the coach’s trust.