BOSTON – It will stand as their eighth consecutive loss to the Bruins. And yet as they left TD Garden amid the slush and snow of a winter storm on Thursday evening, there was a sense among the Leafs that they had finally stood toe to toe with their long-time bully, only to fall just short.
"Tonight we deserved a better fate," Randy Carlyle said proudly of his team's effort in a 4-2 loss, their second to Boston this season and eighth straight dating back to last year. "If we can manage to commit to that type of effort night in, night out we'll win our share of games."
His group matched the intensity and engagement of one of the Eastern elite – highlighted early when Mark Fraser squared off against Adam McQuaid – generally adhering to a smart, conservative road game. But as a team of the Bruins calibre will do, they punished the Leafs for their limited mistakes, edging in front for good with a pair of goals – from Tyler Seguin and David Krejci – in the middle frame. "They just took advantage of small, little mistakes and that was the difference," said Jay McClement, scoring for the third consecutive game, his goal cutting the Bruins lead to one with five-plus minutes remaining in the final period.
"When you play teams like that you have to cut down on your mistakes. You know you're going to make them, but obviously they made us pay for a couple there. But we played hard, we played the way we wanted to coming in, we just fell a little bit short."
The Leafs played to their blueprint, sustaining pressure with their forecheck while grinding with a cycle game down low, but opposite the second-best defensive team in the conference they failed to generate many second chance opportunities and could beat Bruins backup Anton Khudobin only twice on 27 shots. They didn't allow much conversely at the other end – 24 shots at Ben Scrivens – but their mistakes – a couple of forced forays into the neutral zone, Korbinian Holzer most prominently, and a casual backcheck or two, notably Nazem Kadri on the eventual game-winner – landed square in the back of the net.
"They're opportunistic," Carlyle said of the Bruins, now 10-0-1 this season when scoring first. "It's not like you're talking about a bad hockey club over there."
Not entirely proud of their near-meltdown in a 5-4 win over the Senators at home just a night earlier, the Leafs offered a hearty effort in a proving ground against the Bruins, more in line of what will be required in a furious push to the postseason. The Penguins come to town on Saturday, another hardened test for a club trying to assert its place in the Eastern Conference.
"I think we did a lot of things that we are asking of our group and we were not rewarded for the work I think that we put in," Carlyle concluded. "That's the type of hockey that we're going to expect our hockey club to play every night."
1. Leafs vs. Bruins
After an empty 0-for-6 mark a year ago and two losses this season the Leafs have now dropped eight straight to the Bruins. In Boston, the results are equally one-sided; the Bruins are 10-1-1 in the last 12 home games against Toronto. "They're always a tough team to play against, especially in this building, definitely will be a good measuring stick to see where we are as a team," said James van Riemsdyk prior to the game. The Leafs last beat the Bruins at TD Garden on March 31, 2011 when Kadri potted the shootout winner in a 4-3 victory.
2. Missed opportunity early
The Leaf power-play entered the evening as the seventh-best league-wide on the road, but the unit failed to capitalize on a prime opportunity in the opening frame. With Chris Kelly already whistled off for a slash on Phil Kessel, Daniel Paille was then called for high-sticking, handing the visitors a brief, but potentially impactful 23-second 5-on-3 advantage. Tyler Bozak managed the only decent chance, his back-hand attempt stopped by the right pad of Khudobin. The Leafs have scored just three goals this year with the two-man advantage.
3. Second half intensity
With the second half upon them, the Leafs can expect the hockey to get tighter as the chase to the playoffs begins in earnest. "Any time in a year, whether it's a shortened year or not, as soon as the halfway point comes around and you get down to the quarter point of the season everything is ramped up," Dion Phaneuf noted. "You're going to see the intensity of games increase as they do every year down the stretch and this is the stretch run." The Leafs boast a 6-7-0 mark against the current batch of playoff teams in the East.
4. Dissecting a potential Gardiner recall
By all accounts, Jake Gardiner is back to being, well, Jake Gardiner. But for the time being, the 22-year-old remains in the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies. A unique skill-set within the organization, now would seem the obvious and prudent time to recall Gardiner. A look into the club's likely thought process, however, reveals a decision with some nuance and perhaps explains why he is not in the NHL at the moment.
First and maybe most importantly is the waiver dynamic. Holzer is the only defender among the current group of eight who can be reassigned to the Marlies free of the waiver process. Designating the 25-year-old would seem simple enough, but because he has played the past 14 games on the top pairing with Phaneuf and the team has had success (11 wins in 15 games before Thursday's loss), the option is not so clear-cut. Mike Komisarek holds a no-movement clause so he remains and the organization likely isn't at the point of placing John-Michael Liles through such a process. Mark Fraser and Mike Kostka are the next options, but they both require waivers and the Leafs surely have no interest in risking the loss of either one.
So what to do? The Leafs could re-assign Holzer, who struggled against the Bruins on Thursday but has garnered generally consistent minutes, thereby creating an opening alongside Phaneuf. Carlyle could theoretically fill that void by moving Carl Gunnarsson back to his previous position alongside the captain, shifting Phaneuf back to the right side. Carlyle could then slide Gardiner onto a pair with Kostka, a duo that managed much success with the Marlies during the lockout. Recalling Gardiner therefore would force the Leafs to alter two of their three pairs. And while that might not necessarily be a bad thing considering the unique dynamic Gardiner brings to the table, it is a whole lot of change at the midway point of a hectic season. The team has also enjoyed success so there may be no inclination for change just yet. The time will come though; injuries are inevitable, trades remain a distinct possibility and performance can falter. And the Leafs are simply a better team with Gardiner on it; a decision is likely to sort itself out.
5. 22 games for Lupul
Seemingly lost in the Leafs conversation is the continued absence of Joffrey Lupul. Lupul missed his 22nd straight game on Thursday night as he continues to recover from a fractured right forearm. When evaluating the Leafs surprising success this season, it's worth pointing out how much of it they've done – all but three games – without their 29-year-old All-Star left winger. Lupul continues to skate and work towards recovery with no definitive timeline in sight. Leafs GM Dave Nonis noted earlier this week that once the broken bone in Lupul's forearm is fully healed he can work toward strengthening the area before moving toward shooting the puck and eventually returning to practice.
Quote of the Night
"I thought we worked extremely hard. I think we did a lot of things that we are asking of our group and we were not rewarded for the work I think that we put in."
-Randy Carlyle, on his team's performance against Boston.
7 games: Nazem Kadri extended his point streak with his 11th goal of the season. Kadri has totaled six goals and five assists during the seven-game run.
92 per cent: Leaf penalty kill over the past 15 games (43-47), perfect opposite three Bruins power-plays on Thursday.
3: Goals for Phil Kessel in 20 career games against Boston.
2-11: Mikhail Grabovski in the faceoff circle on Thursday.
2-3-0: Leaf record on the second half of back-to-backs this season.
15:04: Korbinian Holzer, his second-lowest mark of the season.
The Leafs return home to host Sidney Crosby and the Penguins on Saturday.