Home sweet home it isn’t.
Somehow, some way, the Toronto Maple Leafs' inability to take any advantage of home-ice advantage has carried on, through a 113-day lockout and nearly a year on the calendar.
They still can’t win at the Air Canada Centre.
Toronto dropped its home opener 2-1 to the Buffalo Sabres on Monday night, losing at the ACC for the 12th time in their last 14 games at home in a continuation of a trend coach Randy Carlyle has vowed to stamp out.
This wasn’t anywhere close to the sort of stinker they were lobbing up regularly in the train wreck of a finish to last season (recall a 7-18-4 nose dive in their final 29 games) but it wasn’t particularly inspired for long stretches, either.
Sabres netminder Ryan Miller was, as per usual against Toronto, excellent, proving the difference-maker when all four forwards on the Leafs' new-look power play couldn’t find a way to sneak a puck past him until the dying minutes.
This despite spending eight minutes on the man advantage – including a two minute 5-on-3 – in the game’s first half alone.
“I think when you’re an offensive player and you get offensive minutes on the 5-on-3, you have to execute,” Carlyle said. “That’s the reality of it. You have to have your best players providing you the offence that’s required in these games in those situations.”
“We had our fair share of chances, but we just didn’t execute to the highest level, which is required to win a hockey game.”
An unlucky bounce started things off poorly for Toronto. The Sabres went up 1-0 midway through the first when Christian Ehrhoff’s point shot went through traffic, off Cody Hodgson’s upper body and in.
“Sometimes those happen,” Leafs' rookie netminder Ben Scrivens lamented.
Then came the Sabres penalty trouble and several of the missed opportunities Carlyle mentioned. With Buffalo down by two men late in the first, Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf rang a shot off the post and Nazem Kadri poked a puck through Miller after the whistle had gone.
Buffalo’s Jason Pominville then made it 2-0 early in the second, capitalizing on an odd-man rush that started with Nikolai Kulemin – who didn’t have much of a night – losing the puck in the offensive zone.
There Scrivens admitted he wanted the goal back.
“I think I caught myself thinking a little bit what he was going to do,” he said. “Instead of just reading the shot. It’s a lesson, and I’ll learn from it.”
“I don’t know what the play we were trying to execute when we gave up the second one was,” Carlyle said. “We gave up a 3-on-2 ... you can’t do that. You can’t give up those kinds of quality scoring chances.”
Toronto earned full marks for effort on the power play after that, with even Phil Kessel going hard to the net, bumping Miller and getting the requisite penalty (and pounding from Sabres pest Patrick Kaleta).
But even with Buffalo taking trip after trip to the box and the Leafs pulling way ahead on the shot clock (21-9 at one point and 35-20 by game’s end), they couldn’t beat Miller until Nazem Kadri wired in a power-play goal with the goalie on the bench and just 1:42 left in the game.
The only other pucks to beat Miller were both waived off, including Joffrey Lupul swatting a potential tying goal in with his glove with a minute to go.
“I couldn’t understand how it went in,” Miller said. “Actually, I was just kind of planning for it to be a goal and have to reset my mindset to go into overtime and pull out a win here.”
“He’s an all-star goaltender and he proved it tonight,” Scrivens said. “Sometimes you run into guys who are in a zone.”
Miller (whose career record against Toronto improved to a gaudy 28-14-0) is hardly the only demon to excise for this Leafs team. Toronto had the fifth-worst home record in the league a year ago, something Carlyle took one look at in his brief time last season and vowed to exact some change.
He appears to have his work cut out for him.
“In most markets there’s a comfort zone at home,” Carlyle said before the game. “We never seemed to develop that; we seemed to be more nervous at home.”
Nerves were an issue for some of his younger players on this night, too. Defenceman Korbinian Holzer, in just his third NHL game, had a hard time with the puck in 15 minutes of ice time, and winger James Van Riemsdyk looked out of sorts until a few good plays late.
Part of the problem for the Leafs at home is they don’t really have a great team for matching lines, something Carlyle loves to do as much as any NHL bench boss.
Their only effective defensive line, led by Mikhail Grabovski, is undersized and can’t take on more than one assignment, while both the so-called top unit (with Kessel and friends) and Kadri’s third line need to be somewhat sheltered.
A year ago, this group at least had an excuse for their play at home. The ACC became a hostile place to play last February as the Leafs imploded, with catcalls for both Ron Wilson and Brian Burke’s heads that seemed to rattle what was the second youngest team in the league.
On Monday, the only thing the Leafs Nation faithful were guilty of was sitting on their hands until the riveting final minutes of the third period, waiting for something to happen before they made any noise.
And playing in a tomb isn’t usually much of a pick-me-up for the home side.