Not even the most optimistic could have expected the Toronto Maple Leafs to be much better than they have been. They are in second place with one game remaining to the midway point of the season, slow start, coaching change and all.
A sloppy loss on Saturday to the New York Rangers squelched a six-game winning streak – but that was the team’s longest in two years. Players have responded to the less onerous approach of their new coach, and the dismissal of Mike Babcock looks more and more justified. Toronto is 12-5 under Sheldon Keefe and 8-1-1 in their past 10.
The final game of the decade at Scotiabank Arena turned out to be a flop: a goal given up in the first two minutes, another allowed early in the second period, a fourth on a breakaway near the end of it.
The Maple Leafs clawed back into a tie but were done in by the New Yorkers less than a minute into overtime. They are 2-9-1 when they trail after two periods.
“I like that we were able to get a point, but I don’t like the fact that we spotted them a lead,” Keefe said. He is as direct in speech as Babcock was circular and difficult to follow.
Despite the loss, there are many reasons for hope – and a few things to worry about.
The offence continues to churn out goals. Auston Matthews had two more against the Rangers and, with 26, is on a pace to surpass 50 for the season. Toronto has not had a 50-goal scorer since Dave Andreychuk’s 53 a quarter-century ago.
Matthews also had an assist on Saturday and went 19-3 in faceoffs. There is grumbling about his defensive play, but contributions at the other end far outweigh any deficiencies.
Scoring isn’t one of the team’s issues. Toronto is second in goals in the NHL – and is among the worst in goals-against.
Frederik Andersen stopped only 33 of 38 shots against the Rangers and has given up 11 goals in his past two starts. Perhaps that is just a blip; maybe it is a sign of fatigue. The Danish goalkeeper has carried a heavy load over the first half.
The Maple Leafs were not very good on defence against New York. They were decidedly short-staffed, with Jake Muzzin out with a broken foot suffered against New Jersey on Friday. Recalled again from the AHL’s Marlies, Martin Marincin played 16 minutes quite capably, but is an unlikely long-term solution if it is necessary.
A letdown on Saturday was not unpredictable. It was the second game of another in another series of back-to-backs, and it came a night after a serious injury to Ilya Mikheyev.
The Russian forward remains in the hospital in Newark, N.J., after undergoing an operation to repair an artery and tendons in his right wrist that were severed against the Devils.
The 25-year-old rookie is expected to recover, but might miss the remainder of the season. The team says a timeline for his return will be provided in three months.
“I think that can hit you a little bit emotionally when you see something that can be as dangerous as that,” John Tavares, the Toronto captain, said Friday night. “It was scary seeing that much blood.”
Mikheyev, who had eight goals and 15 assists in 39 games, left the ice in the third period after being cut by the skate of New Jersey defenceman Jack Hughes.
“The bench was a little shaken at the time and it seemed like every stoppage in play the guys were kind of looking for an update,” Keefe said.
Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas and a team trainer stayed in New Jersey with Mikheyev as the team returned to Toronto.
“It was terrifying,” said Michael Hutchinson, the backup goalie. “All of a sudden, I could see a ton of blood coming from somewhere, a lot more than a high stick or anything like that.”
Toronto was also without Trevor Moore, who continues to be sidelined by a concussion incurred during practice. The winger previously missed four weeks with a shoulder injury.
He is not expected to be in the lineup for Toronto’s next game, in Minnesota on New Year’s Eve.
There are things to fix, but the team is well positioned as it heads into the second half.
There is plenty of scoring to accompany Matthews’s. William Nylander has five goals and 10 points in the past 10 games; Mitch Marner has six goals and 12 assists over the past 11.
Over all, the Maple Leafs are 21-14-5 and have begun to inch closer to the Boston Bruins in the Atlantic Division standing. They trail by eight points.
The point earned against the Rangers helped allay the disappointment of defeat.
“We didn’t have a good start this season, but we have come a long way since then,” forward Zach Hyman said. “You want to face adversity and be comfortable with it. That is how you make strides.
“We just need to keep progressing now.”