Maybe the strangeness of it all was just too much for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
For a change, they out-shot the opposition, didn’t allow anywhere near their customary 50 shots, and moved the puck efficiently out of their own zone. But the result was the same, a 3-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday night, their second in a row.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” said Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, lamenting the fact his team finally played it his way, “by far our best effort in a couple months.”
“That’s pro sports,” Carlyle said. “Something always happens to make you shake your head.”
Another irony on a night full of them was that the difference, as it was in so many Leaf games this season, was goaltending. But Jonathan Bernier, spectacular so often this season, was merely ordinary in his first game against his former team, and failed to make a save he should have in the third period when Jeff Carter put the winning goal between his legs. Kyle Clifford ended any chance of a Leaf comeback with a goal at 18:01.
Kings head coach Darryl Sutter showed why former Leaf Ben Scrivens, part of the trade for Bernier, did not get a chance to face his former team. Rookie goaltender Martin Jones was the spectacular one, winning his fourth game in a row and second in as many nights.
After 40 minutes, the Leafs players could not be blamed if they turned to Carlyle, not to mention the 19,375 fans at the Air Canada Centre, collectively raised their arms and said, “There, we played it your way and what did it get us?”
By the start of the third period, the Leafs had outshot the Kings 21-16, quite a shock for anyone who’s watched them this season, played well in their own end, particularly in the second period, put a lot of pressure on Kings goaltender Martin Jones and all they had to show for it was a 1-1 score. You couldn’t help but feel if the Kings had outshot the Leafs by the same margin over the first two periods, the score might well be 3-0 Toronto.
“The one thing about tonight that we’ve been pleading for, from the defensive side, we had to work as hard on the back-check as the fore-check and that was very evident tonight,” Carlyle said. And the fact there was no reward for it weighed on the players.
“No, they’re down,” Carlyle said, “because we had so many opportunities, so many offensive chances. That’s what happens. You get frustrated and in sports it seems the mountain gets a little bigger when it should get smaller.
“We made good breakout passes, we attacked, we fore-checked. And we didn’t win.”
Then again, it should be remembered the Kings came into the game riding high with a four-game winning streak, capped by a 6-0 demolition of the Montreal Canadiens Tuesday night. They were also tied for second in the NHL’s Pacific Division and were fourth overall in the much tougher Western Conference, so the Maple Leafs, with just two wins in their last nine games and a modest seventh in the Eastern Conference, can take at least some satisfaction from that outing.
The game really was a step in the right direction for the Leafs when you consider they were missing defenceman Dion Phaneuf (suspension), centres Tyler Bozak (hamstring) and Dave Bolland (ankle).
Alas, the malaise on the penalty kill continued for the Leafs, as they gave up a power-play goal for the ninth consecutive game midway through the first period to give the Kings the early lead. Los Angeles defenceman Drew Doughty, who had a monster game, scored his sixth goal of the season. That made it 14 power-play goals against in those nine games.
Jones continued his mastery of the Leafs when they bounced back in the second period to take charge of the play. His best save came early when Phil Kessel blew by Kings defenceman Robyn Regehr for a breakaway. Kessel made a nice deke and tried to slide the puck between Jones’s legs but the goaltender managed to squeeze his pads together just in time.
The Leafs finally caught a break around the 13-minute mark when Kings defenceman Willie Mitchell took an interference penalty and Doughty was called for slashing a minute later, setting up a five-on-three power play.
The Leafs power play has been the only part of their game that remained at least semi-reliable of late, but its effectiveness was in doubt with Phaneuf serving the first of a two-game suspension for a hit from behind. This brought much attention to Cody Franson, who was supposed to show this season he could play the kind of minutes expected from a top-pair defenceman and step up from last season, which was a breakthrough offensively for him.
That had not happened this season, even though Franson had 14 assists to lead the Leafs defence in points. But he picked a good time to score his first goal of the season, snapping a one-time past Jones at 14:30. The Leafs kept the heat on when their power play went to a five-on-four advantage – Joffrey Lupul, back in the lineup and playing well after missing seven games with a groin injury, had two good chances – but Jones held them off.
“We did a lot of good things,” Franson said of the game. “We just didn’t score enough goals. We were all more on the same page tonight than we have been.”
Both Carlyle and Franson talked about the importance of building on this effort, especially since the Leafs are in a stretch of tough games. They left for St. Louis after the game and will play the Blues Thursday night, followed by the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins.
“It just gets easier, doesn’t it?” Carlyle said.
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