TORONTO – The backbone of many wins this season, special teams and goaltending were unable to lift the Leafs to victory once more in an otherwise forgettable performance Thursday night.
Nashville scored a pair of power-play goals and Jonathan Bernier yielded four goals on 28 shots as the Leafs five-game home win streak came to an end in a 4-2 defeat.
"We didn't play well enough," said captain Dion Phaneuf simply after the game. "I don't think you can say much more than that."
While they scored first for the eighth time in 11 games at home – Peter Holland's first with the club – the Leafs seemed to fizzle out as the final two periods wore on at the ACC. A handful on the forecheck in the opening frame they were increasingly outworked and outmaneuvered by a pesky and relentless Predators squad.
"I think our team, they all fit into the same category for us," said head coach Randy Carlyle following the loss, just the third at home for the Leafs this season (8-3-0). "We were flat after the first period. We didn't seem to have any energy, we didn't seem to have any enthusiasm and it just displayed that out on the ice surface."
Seth Jones evened the score just over two minutes into the middle frame, his point shot on the man advantage redirecting off the stick of Jay McClement before beating Bernier.
The goal marked the first of four straight for the Predators, who have now won three in a row.
Matt Cullen would give Nashville the lead midway through period, capitalizing on lax defensive coverage. Craig Smith added a pair thereafter, including the second of two power-play goals for the Predators.
Like their penalty kill – which allowed two goals for just the second time all season – the Toronto power-play (no. 1 on home ice this season) also endured a fruitless night, empty on just two opportunities.
"It just seemed like the game turned and we couldn't get it back," Carlyle said.
A source of so much success and stability for the better part of the season, elite special teams and terrific goaltending have propelled the Leafs to victory on many nights where it might not have been deserved otherwise. But on this night, those two elements could not propel an otherwise listless performance.
1. Stumbles on the penalty kill
The second-ranked unit last season, the Toronto penalty kill hasn't been quite so dominant so far this year. Yielding a pair to the Predators, the special teams unit dropped to 15th best, successful to the tune of 82.4 per cent.
Asked if he'd been happy with the penalty kill, Carlyle replied, "Not lately.
"Our penalty killing has been one of our stronger suits. I think that in the last couple of games we've been exposed. We haven't cleared the puck when we have an opportunity – the opposition's been able to keep it in. Faceoffs, we haven't got hold-ups at the proper times to get the puck down the ice to 200 feet. Those are the things that you look at and try to dissect and evaluate."
Jones scored the first power-play goal on the aforementioned redirection. On the second marker late in that same period, it was Smith who beat Phaneuf to the front of the net before eluding Bernier.
"My guy beats me back to the net," Phaneuf said. "That's just a mistake that shouldn't happen, but they do and we've got to be better as a penalty killing unit. We know that."
The Leaf penalty kill has actually been at its worst on home ice. The unit has allowed eight power-play goals on 36 opportunities (77.8 per cent). Certainly an aid to the group when healthy, Mark Fraser missed his second straight game with a left knee injury.
2. Bernier's rare off-night versus Nashville
Bernier played his 10th career game against Nashville on Thursday night – the most for him individually against any team – losing for just the second time (8-2-0).
The 25-year-old, who shut out the Predators on Oct. 10 – his first as a Leaf – entered the night with a mighty .941 save percentage lifetime against a former Western Conference opponent, but was beaten on four of the final 19 shots.
The final marker, the second from Smith, was fired innocently from along the boards, bouncing off the glove of Bernier and awkwardly into the net. "I've got to make sure I'm focused all game," said Bernier, who allowed four-plus goals for the third time this season. "It just happens. Those kind of goals will happen in my career. I've just got to bounce back."
Bernier still ranks eighth among save percentage leaders with a .934 mark this season.
3. Goalie dance
The Leafs goalie tandem has been about the most successful aspect of the club through the opening quarter of the season. Still early, the tandem approach was worked about as well as general manager Dave Nonis could have imagined when he swung the trade for Bernier in the summer.
"This isn't uncommon," said Carlyle of the tandem approach, always baffled by the constant attention surrounding the position in Toronto. "Terry Sawchuk and Johnny Bower played together didn't they? ... Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog were a pretty good tandem in Edmonton in their dynasty years. So there are examples that you can go back to where there has been two goaltenders that have went in and played very well for their hockey club. I think it's a sign of strength and I think it's a great thing for the organization."
Of late, the load in goal has leaned in Bernier's direction. Thursday marked his fourth start in the past five games and fifth in seven games this month.
4. Kadri on the edge
Former Marlies coach and Oilers bench boss Dallas Eakins often said that Nazem Kadri was at his best on the edge, most effective when enraging the opposition with a belligerent style.
"Yeah I agree for sure," said Kadri, returning from a three-game suspension against the Predators. "Especially when things aren't going exactly your way you tend to lean to that physical side to get you in the game. If it's taking a big hit or a giving a big hit, whatever it is, it kind of wakes you up a little bit and gets you emotionally involved in the game. I think [Dallas] is right and I think he knows me pretty well as a player. I know myself as a player too and sometimes I do have to look to that area to get myself going."
Kadri, who was suspended for accidentally running Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom on Nov. 13, said he often has to remind himself on the bench to activate such a game.
"If I'm not handling the puck or I feel like I'm not getting some of the bounces I might just chip it in and go hard as an F1 and try and lay someone out – and hit 'em clean obviously," he said. "That doesn't just only get yourself going it gets the whole team going. You'd be surprised the reaction you get from the bench."
The 23-year-old played 15 minutes in his return against the Predators, scoring a late goal, his sixth this season. Kadri started the game alongside Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, but was flipped onto a unit with Mason Raymond and Colton Orr in the third.
"I think he fit in with the rest of our group," said Carlyle of Kadri.
5. Holland's opportunity
In his third game with the Leafs, Holland found the back of the net. Pouncing on a puck in the neutral zone, following board battle win from Nik Kulemin, Holland was able to sling one past Predators goaltender Marek Mazanec.
With Kadri back from suspension and Tyler Bozak likely to return on Saturday, future opportunity for Holland is certainly in question. "How can it not be on your mind?" said the 22-year-old honestly. "Obviously Naz was back tonight and Bozak's coming back from injury. [But] I'm just trying to focus on my game and help this team win."
Concluding the night alongside Kessel and van Riemsdyk, Holland played just over 13 minutes against Nashville, dropping eight of 12 faceoffs.
Carlyle's looming decision at centre ice – at least in the short-term – will likely come down to Holland and Trevor Smith, who had a three-game point streak snapped on Thursday night. One of the two is likely to line up in the third line centre hole when Bozak returns.
Bonus Point – Kessel's status
Thursday marked the fourth time in the past five games that Phil Kessel logged fewer than 16 minutes – 15:27 on this night. Though he scored a pair against the Islanders two nights earlier, Kessel has proven relatively quiet offensively in recent weeks.
Asked if he was playing through injury, Carlyle sidestepped carefully.
"I think all our players have bumps and bruises," he said. "They all have their ailments."
2 – Number of times the Leafs have allowed two power-plays in a game this season.
8-2-0 – Career record for Jonathan Bernier against Nashville.
8 – Number of times the Leafs have scored first at the ACC this season.
77.8 per cent – Success rate for the penalty kill on home ice, fifth-worst this season.
8 – Points this season for Morgan Rielly, fourth among rookie defenders. Rielly had a pair of assists on Thursday, his second multi-assist game this season.
5 – Consecutive games with a point for Mason Raymond, who notched an assist on the goal from Kadri.
17 – Points for Raymond this season, second on the team and five back of the 22 points he had in 46 games last season.
59.8 per cent – Success rate for Jerred Smithson on the draw as a Leaf. Smithson went 8-for-9 in the circle against his former team.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 23.6 per cent
Season: 82.4 per cent
Quote of the Night
"Maybe the luck and good fortune that we've enjoyed has turned against us in this game."
-Randy Carlyle on the unlucky goals Nashville managed against his team on Thursday night.
The Leafs continue a five-game home stand on Saturday night, playing host to former Leaf Mikhail Grabovski and the Washington Capitals.