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Marian Gaborik of the Los Angeles Kings watches as Anze Kopitar celebrates his goal in front of the Toronto defenseHarry How/Getty Images

This was the kind of game Brendan Shanahan was looking for.

Even though it ended with a loss.

Expectations were low with the Toronto Maple Leafs facing the defending Cup champs in Los Angeles on Monday night, and there was a brutal start, with Anze Kopitar scoring 37 seconds in as Toronto was running around in its zone.

From there, it was a very even game.

Save for an empty netter, Kopitar's goal was only separator in the 2-0 loss, with the Leafs pressing through the second and third but unable to convert on three power plays. It's on special teams where they'd like to be better, but at even strength, where they always laboured under previous coach Randy Carlyle, this was a vastly improved look.

The Leafs gave up only 20 shots, for one, and had a 48 per cent possession rating against a Kings team that had a dominant 58 per cent mark in its last 15 games, driving play extremely well against several clubs with better records than Toronto.

It was an obvious physical mismatch, too, something that played out early with LA delivering some crushing hits, and that's going to be a story as the average-sized Leafs try to play a much more board-reliant game.

But Toronto did cycle the puck well – especially in the second period – and made smart plays on the breakout and neutral zone. They were rarely hemmed in; they rarely looked like an Eastern Conference weakling.

These aren't subtle changes. These are giant leaps, if they can be maintained.

That they didn't score was a credit to Kings netminder Martin Jones, who played well, and, as mentioned, a few weak efforts on the power play.

"We'll take that loss," said Leafs netminder Jonathan Bernier, who has remarked several times since joining the team they need to tighten up defensively. "I thought we deserved better."

"We just played down low," teammate Nazem Kadri explained of the improvement. "Possessed the puck, put pucks to the net and got second opportunities off that."

The numbers back that up.


Under Carlyle

Under Horachek




Shots for



Shots against



Attempts for



Attempts against



Zone starts

41.6 per cent

44.7 per cent

Scoring chances

43.3 per cent

53.6 per cent


44.6 per cent

49.6 per cent

Again, you have to caution that these are early days. Three games is only three games. But as the chart highlights, these are dramatic shifts and they're coming almost entirely on the defensive side.

Offensively, the Leafs are pressing to a similar extent – with the Kings stifling defensive play on Monday having a big impact in terms of pulling those numbers down – but allowing 12 fewer shots against per game is quite remarkable, especially given they have played two good teams in this stretch.

"If you give up 20 shots a game, most of the time you're going to end up on the right side," Bernier said.

"You look at all the top teams in the West and they all play tight defence," new coach Peter Horachek said. "[If you do] you're going to be in more games and you're going to take advantage of teams that don't play that way more often."

The cynics will say, yes, but the Leafs are 1-2-0 in three games under Horachek. The reality, however, is Shanahan and the rest of the front office is looking at this in the big, panoramic picture, with a focus on whether or not this group can play better defensively than it did under Carlyle.

So far, the answer is pretty resounding. This roster is capable of more than it showed the last season and a half.

And the odds are if they continue to out chance weaker teams and play stronger ones to close to a draw – especially with a tighter defensive game – they'll begin to win more of these games.

That isn't so much analytics as it is common sense, of which there is plenty in the Leafs front office.

"It's disappointing and it's a little frustrating when you don't see it and you want to see the results," Horachek said of coming up short in two of three games. "But at this point we've just got to make sure we keep moving forward in that direction."

"I like our chances if we keep playing that way," Kadri said.

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