The Maple Leafs and Flames are on similarly odd trajectories this season. Slow starts. Unexpected and coaching changes. Recent surges that have begun to sow seeds for optimism.
And so it was they met Thursday night at the Saddledome in a game that promised drama. Calgary came in with six straight wins and points in eight consecutive games. Toronto had won six of its last nine, including two previous outings on the road.
Cue up the theatrical music, please.
It was evenly played until the third period, and in that way, as good as it gets. Momentum see-sawed back and forth like an NBA game. Close chances drew gasps from the crowd.
In the end, it was a hard-fought 4-2 loss for the Maple Leafs. The good they had accomplished for 40 minutes was undone when the Flames scored three times in less than three minutes to start the third. Johnny Gaudreau scored 19 seconds in and then again on a deflection to end the uprising. In between, Michael Frolik did the damage.
Calgary climbed into second place in the Pacific Division. Toronto has a chance to get back on track against the Oilers in Edmonton on Saturday. Connor McDavid and Co. have lost three in a row but still have 40 points, same as the Flames.
The Maple Leafs aren’t advancing much in the standings because they fell too deep into a hole with their erratic play to start the season. But they are gaining in confidence and playing better since Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock on the bench. They have killed 21 of the last 23 penalties. They were a dam looking for a hole to burst in the first 20 or so games.
Toronto held the lead twice, once on a first-period goal by John Tavares, then later when Mitch Marner put them ahead with 5:54 remaining in the second period. For Tavares, the Maple Leafs captain, it was the sixth goal in as many games.
With the exception of those three badly played minutes, and that is a big exception, it was game played well enough by both to be admired.
For much of the evening, the goalies shined. In one span of a half-minute in the second period, the Flames’ David Rittich and the Maple Leafs’ Frederik Andersen swapped spectacular saves. Milan Lucic, who is becoming a fan favourite in the Stampede city with hustle and grind, made a bone-rattling hit.
Toronto’s loud and boisterous fans did their best to drown out Calgary’s followers. They traded cheers and jeers with equal aplomb.
Until very recently, both teams were on missions of misadventure. The Maple Leafs dismissed Babcock after a slow start — and then allegations arose that raise eyebrows about his coaching techniques, if not his acumen. The Flames were just starting to come around when Bill Peters resigned after he was accused of using a racial slur against a former player.
Calgary has not yet lost since Geoff Ward was named interim head coach for the rest of the season. He is 7-0. That is something to be excited about in Calgary.
Toronto is 15-14-4 and 6-4 under Keefe.
“I feel like I’m getting a pretty good handle on the group, but we are still a long way from where we want to be,” he said after the morning skate.
There were more dramatic moments in the NHL last night — Jack Eichel scored twice for Buffalo, to extend his point streak to 15 games. Joe Thornton skated in the 1,600th game of his career when the Sharks hosted the Rangers in San Jose.
But this wasn’t. Even when they trailed 4-2 in the third, the outcome looked a bit iffy. The Maple Leafs had a 5-3 power-play for 1 minute 34 seconds and failed to score. Auston Matthews whistled one that ricocheted around but never crossed the goal line.
It came at the end of a flurry of hard shots. When it was over, he leaned against the cross bar and caught his breath.
“It should be a pretty good game,” Tavares said earlier. “Both of us are trying to build on good things.”
He was right about that. The Flames look like they are in control of the season again. The Maple Leafs have to go back to building.