ST. PAUL, Minn – On many nights this season, terrific goaltending and special teams lifted the Leafs to victory where it might not have been deserved. That was nearly the case once more at Xcel Energy Center on Wednesday night, but, in this instance, a win slipped away.
“We got what we deserved,” said Carl Gunnarsson, bluntly in conversation with the Leaf Report after a 2-1 shootout loss to the Wild. “I just mean if you look at the game all over, 65 minutes, we didn't deserve more than one point.”
In a game that saw Nazem Kadri ejected, Jonathan Bernier brilliant once more and both special teams units back on the mark, the Leafs ultimately tripped up in the waning moments, their collective ineffectiveness to that point ultimately bringing about a deserved fate.
“We're not happy about it,” Gunnarsson said of his team's play, “but we could've had two points. We had the chance and we didn't take it. But if you look over the whole game, we didn't deserve more.”
Stuck with just one even-strength goal in the past four games, the Leafs failed to generate much of an attack for the better part of two periods against the Wild. But with a power-play goal from Mason Raymond in the second, excellence from Bernier and the penalty kill, they actually led late and appeared on course for two points.
It was then, with less than five minutes, to go that a Phil Kessel defensive zone giveaway landed in the hands of Charlie Coyle. Punishing the error, Zach Parise would even the score at one before capping it with the shootout winner a short while later.
“We have the puck under control in our zone, we cough it up and it ends up in our net,” Randy Carlyle said of the game-tying goal afterward.
Moments earlier, the Leafs had killed off a mammoth five-minute Wild power-play – Kadri given a match penalty for his hit on Mikael Granlund (more in Five Points) – with Minnesota managing just a single shot opposite an aggressive and impactful penalty kill.
And so, while not playing up to their desired standard, the Leafs had put themselves in position for victory only to fumble it away.
“Yeah for sure,” said Raymond. “That stings a bit.”
It was perhaps due karma. Only a month earlier, the Leafs were outshot 37-14 by the Wild at home, escaping with victory on the shoulders of a 36-save performance from James Reimer, two power-play goals and a near-perfect effort on the penalty kill.
Holding three of his seven career shutouts against the Wild, Bernier was busy and effective as he has been all season. The 25-year-old stopped 33 of 34 shots, beaten only by Parise on an unlikely ricochet attempt in front.
Troubling for the Leafs was the amount of time they spent defending rather than initiating the play as was desired – the Wild out-attempted them by a 70-43 margin.
A focal point of attention for Carlyle in the early weeks this season and especially the past few days, the short stock of Toronto forwards (they dressed only 11, lost Kadri and played without Colton Orr and Carter Ashton in the third) were unable to consistently pressure the Minnesota defence, rarely generating much offence against Josh Harding, who replaced Niklas Backstrom early in the first.
“We didn't really have that [offensive] zone time,” Gunnarsson said. “We didn't cycle the puck a whole lot, [we were] kind of receiving the game. They moved the puck down low on us and played a whole bunch in our end.”
Heroics from the goaltenders and fine special teams play bailed out those inconsistencies amid a successful start, but not on this night.
1. Kadri's eventful night
Charging hard into the Wild crease early in the first, Kadri leveled Backstrom with what appeared to be an elbow and was whistled for the first of three penalties. Soaking up plenty of ice in the opening 40 minutes – he led Leaf forwards with upwards of 15 minutes – the 23-year-old would get the gate for good midway through the third.
Kadri delivered a crunching hit to Granlund along the boards in the neutral zone for which he was given a match penalty.
“He made initial contact with the shoulder and the kid had the head down and he didn't have his arms up and he ran into the player,” said Carlyle, clearly not in agreement with the punishment.
For his collision with Backstrom, Kadri will garner a hearing with the NHL's department of discipline on Thursday afternoon. At his best on the edge, Kadri may have crossed a line.
“Naz is a very skilled player,” said Dion Phaneuf, “but he plays with an edge and he plays hard. I think that's a big thing that's unique about him is that he doesn't just have those very soft hands and playmaking ability, but he's a physical guy.”
Already short Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland, a suspension to Kadri would further damage the Leafs down the middle.
2. Five-on-five woes continue
The Leafs were one of the league's most potent teams at full strength last season. They scored 105 goals, trailing only the Lightning, Blackhawks and Penguins.
So far this season, however, they've not been nearly as successful.
The Leafs boast the 20th-ranked five-on-five offence (29 goals,) failing to score an even-strength goal for the third time in four games against the Wild on Wednesday night.
3. Clarkson's drought
The goal drought reached eight games for David Clarkson. The 29-year-old hasn't scored yet as a Leaf, totaling just one assist thus far.
“I think that's going to start soon,” said Clarkson optimistically before the game. “Start burning some incense here in my stall.”
The Leafs weren't counting exclusively on potent offence from their marquee offseason addition, but some level of contribution was to be expected for a player who scored 45 goals over the past two seasons.
Clarkson has had opportunities, including a glorious chance against his former team last week. But rather than trickle across the goal-line, his attempt on Cory Schneider wobbled wide right.
“I think if you're getting chances and you're getting good quality chances, then I think you're doing something right,” Clarkson said, noting the ability to contribute elsewhere if pucks weren't finding twine.
One easy cure would be to shoot the puck more often, something the Toronto native made mention of himself. During his final two seasons in New Jersey, Clarkson averaged 3.19 shots per game, but in his first eight games as a Leaf, he's down to just two per game.
A primary power-play contributor with the Devils, Clarkson is additionally beginning to see more time on the man advantage with the Leafs, with the injuries to Bozak and Bolland opening up opportunity.
“He's had chances and I think it's part of our responsibility to try and support him with some of the power-play situations, maybe move him up and down in the lineup, play with more offensive players,” Carlyle said, with Clarkson matched with Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul against the Wild. “There's no better cure for a guy that hasn't scored is to continue to move up the lineup and play with your better players and get power-play time.”
4. Kadri at even-strength
Kadri has interestingly dipped most in terms of even-strength offence. He accrued 82 per cent of his offence in such situations last season, his 36 points leading the team. But after 18 games this fall, his production there has taken nearly a 20 per cent hit. Kadri has just eight of his 13 points at even-strength (62 per cent) with the power-play a source of increased productivity.
5. JVR Down the middle
Wednesday marked the third career game at centre for James van Riemsdyk. One difference in playing down the middle, according to the 24-year-old, is positioning in transition offensively.
“It's a little different,” he said. “When you're coming on the rush you're usually in the middle versus being on the wall; you're usually looking to kick it wide and maybe drive or whatever; you're not usually going to pull up in the middle of the ice and just stop there because then you'll turn it over.
“That's usually why the wingers in general get more shots than centre iceman do," van Riemsdyk said.
After mustering just a single shot in the previous two games, van Riemsdyk finished with four shots against the Wild, but remained pointless at centre ice. A temporary stopgap when Bolland suffered an ankle injury, he may get the move back to wing soon enough. Out since Oct. 25 with a hamstring injury, Bozak skated for the first time on Tuesday and could be in line to return in the next couple weeks. The 27-year-old is eligible to come of long-term injured reserve on Nov. 21.
All of that could change, of course, with a Kadri suspension.
30 – Faceoffs for Jerred Smithson against the Wild, winning 53 per cent.
23:27 – Ice-time for Jay McClement, a season-high.
70-43 – Shot attempts favouring the Wild.
29 – Total goals for the Leafs at five-on-five.
.939 – Save percentage for Jonathan Bernier after 12 games this season.
15 – Times this season the Leafs have been outshot by an opponent.
Special Teams Capsule
Quote of the Night
“We got what we deserved.”
-Carl Gunnarsson on the eventual result against the Wild.
The Leafs visit the Sabres on Friday in the first half of a home and home set.