The players behind that high-powered Toronto Maple Leafs offence say they like the way they’re shooting. The trouble is, they’re shooting blanks.
It was a familiar story again Thursday night, as a determined opponent, this time the Dallas Stars, came into the Maple Leafs’ arena and ground that offence into the ice. The Stars slowed the Leafs down enough for a 2-1 win.
It was the Leafs’ fourth loss in their last six games and left them with a home record of 3-5. Even worse, it marked two consecutive losses since Auston Matthews was lost to a shoulder injury.
Oh, the Leafs had their chances. They outshot the Stars 32-19 by the time it was over. But half of those shots came in the third period when the Stars put up the defensive shield as the Leafs finally started swarming in the last few minutes of regulation.
“I think we’re all happy with the effort tonight,” said Leafs forward Mitch Marner, who missed the net on a great chance to tie the score with 10 seconds to play in regulation time. “The results just didn’t happen.”
One reason the results didn’t happen is the Leafs don’t give themselves much of a chance to seize the advantage early in the game. Thursday’s loss made it five times in the Leafs’ last five home games they failed to score in the first two periods. Their lone goal against Dallas came at 16:51 of the third period on a rare power-play goal, as Patrick Marleau scored just his second of the season.
Like his players, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock thought his team played well against the Stars. He also thought there were lots of scoring chances in some of those five home games. The Leafs just need to figure out how to put some of them in the net.
“It is what it is, a little adversity for our group,” Babcock said. “Dig in. That's it. You go through it at times every year, just dig in and find a way to win a game. That's it.”
Well, the only ones finding ways to win right now are the Leafs’ opponents. And they have all found the same way.
The Stars came out with what is now the textbook way to play the Leafs – fore-check like mad in their end and jam up the neutral zone so they can’t get their attack moving. Then jam in a chance or two of your own. It was more of what the Calgary Flames did in beating the Leafs 3-1 on Monday night.
This time, the Leafs did not meekly submit but it was not easy going, either. Getting past the Dallas fore-checking and their close-checking in the neutral zone turned the game into a slog. There were only a handful of scoring chances in the first period (the Leafs outshot the Stars 9-7) and the Leafs had most of them but could not get anything behind goaltender Anton Khudobin.
The best chance came on a Leafs power play midway through the period. Marner made a terrific pass across the slot to John Tavares, who was at the top of the left faceoff circle. Tavares could not get his shot off quite as fast as Matthews did in the same spot on power plays before he was injured but he still managed to rip one, off the crossbar.
“You know, whether the puck bounces on you or you hit a crossbar you’ve just got to keep pushing forward and can’t let that distract you from your next shift and hopefully that next opportunity,” Tavares said. “It’s a long season, you just keep staying ready, working hard and doing everything you can to turn the tide and get the puck bouncing your way.”
It was more of the same through the second period, only this time the Stars were a little more dominant and took the lead. It could have been worse but once again Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen kept his team in the game. He stopped the Stars twice on two-on-one rushes, the second one a shorthanded effort during yet another impotent Leafs power play.
This was the one area where the Stars did not handle the Leafs quite as well as the Flames. They gave the Leafs five power-play opportunities on the night, snuffing out the first four. The Leafs finally managed to score on the fifth one with Marleau’s goal.
The Stars opened the scoring at 11:55 of the second period with a deflection. Tyler Seguin ripped a shot from the top of the left faceoff circle (the same spot where Tavares missed) that was tipped downward by linemate Jamie Benn. That was Benn’s first goal since Oct. 13 and ended a seven-game scoring drought. Incidentally, Seguin has not scored since Oct. 9, a nine-game streak. But the Stars have managed to get by without their best two players filling the nets.
Devin Shore made it 2-0 Dallas at 4:43 of the third when Leafs defenceman Travis Dermott, back in the lineup after a four-game absence, forgot to keep an eye on him in front of the net.
Leafs defenceman Ron Hainsey was saluted before the game for playing in his 1,000th NHL game. He and his family received a number of gifts from the NHL and his teammates, who kept on giving once the game started, although he didn’t see it that way.
“We played much better than Monday, which was our focus as far as the game went,” he said. “We did not get the job done. The result was not what we wanted but it was a step in the right direction.”