It was a night to forget for Jonathan Bernier.
And his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates likely won’t want to bank this one away either.
With a green rookie in net and a roster that doesn’t have a single player with more than six goals after 22 games, the Nashville Predators played an effective road game in stifling the Leafs as part of a 4-2 win on Thursday that was their third in a row.
Bernier may have worn the goat horns, but he had company throughout the roster, as Toronto played one of its worst periods of hockey as part of a disastrous middle frame that included three goals against.
“A couple bad bounces and it’s 4-1,” Bernier said quietly as he sat in his dressing room stall after allowing a particularly ugly, bad angle goal early in the third period to rule out a Leafs comeback. “It barely hit my glove and just hopped over. You guys saw it better than me I think.”
The loss wasn’t all on the goalie, however.
This was definitely also a case of East meets West, and that hasn’t been an pleasant scenario for the East in the NHL this season at all. Minus the Edmonton Oilers, who have struggled to beat just about anyone, Western Conference teams had a ridiculous 82-29-15 record against those out East heading into Thursday’s games, a disparity that threatens to make a team like Nashville’s road to the postseason impossibly difficult.
The Predators are missing workhorse netminder Pekka Rinne and aren’t a team that generates much offence or controls the puck all that well, a recipe for disaster in a conference where the 15-5-0 Colorado Avalanche were sitting in eighth place when the puck dropped on this one.
But Nashville’s grinding style often fits what they often match up against, and it helped them take out two contenders in Chicago and Detroit leading up to their meeting with the Leafs.
“There’s more structure in the West,” said former Leaf-turned-Pred Viktor Stalberg, who was stopped by Bernier on a second period breakaway. “Not as much up and down the ice. The transition is more structured, and it’s a little more defensive game.”
It’s also a style that’s antithetical to the game the Leafs have won with this season, something that showed on Thursday.
Where Toronto’s forwards wanted to create offence on the fly and through individual efforts, especially when they were trailing, Nashville’s game was straight up and down the ice, including some dump-and-chase hockey and a throw-pucks-at-the-net mentality that paid off after a poor start.
Part of it was that Nashville coach Barry Trotz was well aware what his team was up against in the Leafs, noting they had been caught “off guard” in their last meeting, a 4-0 Toronto win early in the year.
That wasn’t going to happen in this one.
“Their strength is really the rush, transition game,” Trotz had said before the game. “They’re dynamic… We’ve got to control a couple aspects of their game.”
Mission accomplished on Thursday, as after a strong first period buoyed by a stinker of an opening goal by Leafs newcomer Peter Holland on rookie ‘tender Marek Mazanec, Toronto was heavily outplayed in a second frame where the Preds pumped three goals past Bernier.
Special teams ultimately ended up deciding the game, with rookie defenceman Seth Jones and Craig Smith both scoring on second period power plays to give them a 3-1 lead going into the third.
Smith then added the aforementioned embarrassing garbage goal early in the third to put the game away and shift the postgame focus all on Bernier, who was starting for the fourth time in five games despite owning identical numbers to teammate James Reimer.
But the Leafs penalty kill was also part of the problem, especially given goaltending has covered its warts all year. The unit has quietly foundered of late, allowing eight goals in eight November games with a kill rate of just 75 per cent.
More troublingly, Toronto’s shorthanded unit has routinely been giving up far more opportunities and zone time all season than it did a year ago, with their shot attempt against rate up 33 per cent.
With Bernier less than ordinary, his teammates also didn’t have an answer offensively against a team that had heavily game planned against allowing their odd-man rushes.
“They make you earn what you get,” said Leafs defenceman Cody Franson, himself a former Predator. “You check the turnovers, 98 per cent of their games they’re probably very low for them. They don’t take a lot of chances.”
“They’ve got a team that has had a workmanlike attitude for 15 years,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “They established that there’s a way to play, and it’s the Nashville Predator way. They don’t waver from that. If you don’t want to play that way, they get somebody that does.”
That Toronto didn’t have leading scorer Phil Kessel at 100 per cent was likely also a factor in their demise. He played sparingly at even strength and less than 16 minutes for the third straight game, going pointless for the seventh time in his last nine outings.
Carlyle was mum as to the reason for the ice time decline, allowing only that many of his players are leaning on the training and medical staff to keep them in action night after night.
“I think all our players have bumps and bruises,” Carlyle said when asked about Kessel, who missed practice Monday due to the flu and had his wrist heavily taped during recent games. “They all have their ailments.”
Even so, you can chalk another two points up for the kind of game being played in the West and another strike against the free-flowing brand the Leafs have been leaning on to win so many games.
And it's likely not a coincidence that the NHL’s top eight teams right now are all in the one conference, playing a harder brand of hockey.
“The West is a 200-foot game,” Trotz said. “The LAs and the St. Louises and teams like that they rely on a 200-foot game more than anybody. And I think there’s more of a rush game out East."
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