It is still not clear where bottom is but the Toronto Maple Leafs took a couple more steps down to it Sunday night.
They let a strong start dribble away to another feeble effort and a 4-2 loss to the mediocre Arizona Coyotes. It was the Leafs’ fourth consecutive loss at home and sixth in their last seven games in front of their own fans who, oddly enough, did not seem unduly distressed by the lack of fire. There were no complaints until the final seconds when a few boos were heard.
Perhaps that was because the Leafs still sit second in the NHL’s Atlantic Division with a 29-17-2 record and 60 points. But the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens have been hovering for weeks thanks to the Leafs’ ineptitude and both are one point behind them.
The Leafs players and head coach Mike Babcock were in agreement with the fans. They thought they put up quite the effort against the Coyotes, who have won five of their last seven games but sport an overall record of 22-22-4.
“There were a lot of good things,” said centre John Tavares, who scored his 30th goal of the season. “We controlled a lot of the play. I think, really, other than them having four power plays and probably two or three shifts after we tied it in the third, they had some momentum.
“The rest of the game we did some really good things. I thought we were staying with it, skating well and getting on pucks. Another game we didn’t get much room. I counted three posts … I don’t know if it was more than that. Obviously it’s a game of inches, small fractions here and there.”
While it certainly appeared the Leafs let a good start slip away over the second period, Babcock, too, declared himself satisfied with the effort. He noted the Coyotes, who outshot the Leafs 31-27, blocked 30 shots.
“I thought we had the puck a lot,” he said. “I didn't think we had a lot of puck-luck, to be honest with you. We had lots of attempts, the puck is lying there and we never got it to the net as much as we could have off those rebounds and pucks laying there.
“I liked a lot of the things we did. It appeared to me - I haven't watched the game [on video] - but it appeared to me live that we had the puck an absolute ton and, in the end, we didn't win the game. You're going to have some of those.”
The Leafs did score the first goal of the game on a long shot from defenceman Travis Dermott, who moved up to the second pair after Jake Gardiner was unable to play because of back spasms. However, the Leafs slowly slid downhill from there.
It was as if the rare Sunday night game had them as out of sorts as the fans, who did not seem overly enthused either. By the end of the second period, the Coyotes led 2-1 on goals from Mario Kempe and Clayton Keller.
The Leafs got the fans excited early in the third period when Tavares’ goal tied the score. But they coughed up a goal to Vinnie Hinostroza a few minutes later and that stood up as the winner.
The Leafs pulled goaltender Frederik Andersen with two minutes left in the third period for an extra skater but could not produce much in the way of scoring chances. Lawson Crouse scored an empty-net goal for Arizona.
To add to the Leafs’ woes, left winger Andreas Johnsson was lost late in the second period. He sustained a concussion in a collision with the boards and did not return to the game. Babcock said he will not play in Wednesday’s game against the Washington Capitals, which means Johnsson is out until the Leafs return from their all-star and five-day breaks on Feb. 1 against the Detroit Red Wings.
Gardiner, who had been playing through his back spasms for a while, is also unlikely to play Wednesday.
It was actually Mitch Marner who came out flying the highest for the Leafs. He dangled his way to three shots on goal and seven shot attempts in the first period, which included at least three tremendous scoring chances.
But it was the fourth line that produced the first goal, which was a bit of a fluke, thanks to a strong shift by William Nylander, Frederik Gauthier and Par Lindholm. Gauthier and Nylander kept the puck in the Arizona zone with Nylander feeding Dermott at the point. The defenceman’s wobbly shot found the top corner on goaltender Darcy Kuemper at 11:45.
That was as good as it got for the Leafs, as their play declined through the second period when the Coyotes outshot them 11-5.
Typical of the disjointed play was an odd scoring chance for the Coyotes midway through the period. As Leafs defenceman Ron Hainsey took his time getting back, Coyotes forward Josh Archibald moved past him and followed a high lob pass to the net. The puck actually got to Andersen first and he fired it straight back out. But the puck hit Archibald flush on the face and rebounded right at Andersen, who had to make the save while Archibald slid to the boards, writhing in pain.