That was better, but against the Stanley Cup champions, not quite good enough.
The Maple Leafs skated circles around the St. Louis Blues on Monday but still fell short in their first true test against a top-flight opponent.
A third-period goal by Alex Pietrangelo lifted the gritty, hard-hitting visitors to a 3-2 victory. It was their seventh win in a row over Toronto and fourth straight on the Maple Leafs’ home ice.
It was the best game Toronto has played this young season, but its second loss in a row following Saturday’s shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens. It does not get easier, either. The Tampa Bay Lightning come to Scotiabank Arena on Thursday night.
The Maple Leafs are built for speed and at times the Blues looked as slow as a street car on King Street East. The game was like a boxing match between a featherweight and a heavyweight, and this time, at least, muscle prevailed.
“I thought it was a real good game,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. “In the end, good teams find a way to win. That’s what they do."
The Maple Leafs blew around and past St. Louis and took more shots but were dominated for large portions of the game. It was a classic match between teams built in vastly different ways: one with quickness and the other with size.
The Blues used the same formula to win their first Stanley Cup this past summer, and only raised their championship banner six days ago. The Maple Leafs haven’t done that in 52 years.
“They won the Cup and we didn’t," Morgan Rielly, Toronto’s alternate captain, said earlier in the day. “You have to look at their blueprint and look at how they did it. You have to figure out what works.”
The Maple Leafs have only two wins in regulation time in their last 10 games against the Blues. The last time they beat them was Jan. 2, 2016.
“We did a pretty good job overall, but we didn’t make enough plays,” John Tavares said. The captain is yet to score in four games. “They are a patient, stingy team, and when you play them it is going to be a tight game.”
The Leafs came out flying and carried the play in the first period. They outshot St. Louis 15-7 but were still unable to beat Jordan Binnington, the goalie who backstopped the Blues to the Stanley Cup as a rookie.
Binnington, who grew up in suburban Richmond Hill, had 32 saves in his first start in Toronto.
Auston Matthew, named one the NHL’s three players of the week earlier in the day, botched two glorious chances to put Toronto ahead early. First, he missed a backhand as he broke in close on a lovely give-and-go from Mitch Marner. Then he rattled a hard shot off the post from his favourite spot on the ice to one side of the net.
St. Louis jumped on top with 11:30 left in the second when Oskar Sundqvist whistled a slap shot past Frederik Andersen from near the right face-off circle. Hard work from Jason Spezza, playing in his first home game for the Maple Leafs, paid off with the tying goal three minutes later.
The 36-year-old Spezza, who was scratched in each of Toronto’s previous home games, batted a puck in the air from behind the net to Frederik Gauthier, who had the good fortune of having it land on his stick. Gauthier then easily found the mark in close.
William Nylander gave the Maple Leafs their first lead only 24 seconds later, whipping a puck around Binnington as he skated hard past the goal mouth. It took Nylander 24 games to score his second goal after holding out last season. He now has two in four games, and a point in each contest.
Brayden Schenn tied it 48 seconds before the second intermission and then Pietrangelo came through with the heroics.
Last season, the Blues became the first team in the expansion era to win the Stanley Cup after being in last place 37 games into a season.
“If before the season started you told me they would win the Cup I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised.," Babcock said. "When the wheels came off, it didn’t look good for them. But what strikes me about them in looking back is that they were that good.
"Let’s not kid ourselves. They didn’t win with pixie dusk.”
They outscored the Leafs 7-3 in last year’s two meetings, and picked up right where they left off.
“They beat us twice last year and both times they handled us,” Babcock said.
Babcock said the Leafs needed a bounce-back game after blowing a three-goal lead in the third period against Montreal. They got one, but it wasn’t enough.
One team is a champion. The other is just a contender.