The Toronto Maple Leafs have been looking forward to this week. Two of their three games are against some of the NHL’s lighter weights and all are at home. They see it as a chance to correct mistakes and to gain ground after a so-so first month of the season.
If that is the case, they weren’t successful on Tuesday night. They escaped a loss to the Los Angeles Kings with a 3-1 victory, but none of the issues that have plagued them were solved.
They went home with another ho-hum win over an opponent that does not quite pass the smell test. Same thing, another day.
On the plus side, the Maple Leafs improved to 8-5-3. Their next game is Thursday night at Scotiabank Arena against the Vegas Golden Knights. At 9-5-2, they are the type of quality side they have failed against so far. How they fare will prove to be interesting.
Toronto had to endure the longest shootout in franchise history to beat the less-than-ferocious Flyers in Philadelphia on Saturday night. And now this. They allowed the Kings to dictate the terms on which the game was played and that made it way closer than it should have been. LA is now 5-10 and should be a stepping stone for a team with aspirations for a long postseason run.
The Maple Leafs’ first-period foibles continued. They failed to score on a handful of good early chances, and then later John Tavares flipped a forehand over a wide-open net during a power play from five feet away.
Toronto entered the night with only two goals during a man advantage over its last eight games and that streak of offensive ineptitude continued. Left wide open, Tavares joined the list of players who have muffed an easy one lately. After going 0 for 3, they are now 2 for their last 26 with the man advantage.
A spotlight followed Tavares as he skated circles around the ice minutes before the puck drop. It was the captain’s first game since he suffered a broken finger against Washington on Oct. 16. He took the Maple Leafs’ first shot, missed on the power play point-blank and otherwise was fairly quiet.
Auston Matthews poked a puck that was pinballing around the crease past Jonathan Quick with 7:24 remaining to break a 1-1 tie. It was his 12th goal of the season and he got his sixth assist of the season 30 seconds later when William Nylander backhanded one in for his fourth goal of the season, and that was it.
“We were patient, didn’t try to force much and grinded through the game,” Nylander, who also had an assist, said.
The Kings may not be good but they are big and play a tough, heavy game. Jeff Carter dropped Alexander Kerfoot with a hard, high shoulder in the first period and bodies flew all night. Between them the teams had 49 hits.
Kerfoot was struck in the jaw and was tested for a concussion before he was allowed to return to play.
“I was shaken up a little bit,” Kerfoot said. “He made a good play. I had my head down.”
Frederik Andersen picked up where he left off on Saturday, stopping all seven shots he faced before the first intermission in a goalie stalemate with Los Angeles netminder Quick. Four days earlier Andersen turned away 37 of 40 in regulation and overtime and 10 of 11 in a shootout in the 4-3 victory over Philadelphia. It was the longest shootout Toronto has been party to since the format was instituted for the 2005-06 season.
Andersen finished with 24 saves, and Quick had 20 in the tightly played defensive game.
“I think we stayed patient,” Matthews said. A sprawling blocker save by Quick prevented him from getting another goal. “We understood chances were going to come.”
Alex Iafallo tapped in a puck from the left side of the net on a power play with 14:20 left in the second to put the Kings ahead 1-0. The Maple Leafs tied it nearly nine minutes later but needed help to do it. Kerfoot, whose penalty led to the Los Angeles goal, skated unabated from inside the opposition blueline and beat Quick with a quick flick of his wrist. The centre of the ice was as clear as a bowling lane because two Kings players crashed into one another like Keystone Cops.
The game was the first for Jake Muzzin against his former team. Muzzin played in Los Angeles for eight seasons before he was traded to Toronto early in 2019. He had dinner with some of his former teammates in Toronto on Sunday night. A good time was surely had then, but Tuesday was not a barrel of laughs for anyone.
“It was a good game,” Muzzin said. “They are a tough team to play against.”
Drew Doughty, the chippy and plain-talking (and talking and talking) defenceman for the Kings, was less of a pest than usual. Doughty, who is never shy about sharing an opinion about anything, was lightly booed for taking a swipe at the Maple Leafs on Monday.
When asked if he believes it is inevitable that Toronto will find firm footing and make a strong playoff run, he expressed doubt.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Doughty said. “I know they have a really good roster, but I mean, a lot of teams have good rosters in this league, and I don’t think they’re in first place in the East, are they? So that means right now there are some better teams than them just judging off the standings.”
It is hard to argue right now with his assessment.
“We knew what we were in for,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. “We knew we were in for a grind. They made it hard but I think it was a really good game for [us]. We need to figure out who we are. The harder the game is, the more who we are.
“Some people thought it was ugly. That was beautiful.”
As many questions remain now as last week. It was a win, and nothing more than that. That will have to do for now.
“As long as the season is, it is tough to get wins,” Kerfoot said. “We just got them back to back and will try to keep it going.”