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Siegel: Script flips as Leafs play 'best game', lose to Kings

Jonas Siegel
12/12/2013 12:57:52 AM
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TORONTO – This time it was the Leafs stifling their opponent, furiously dictating the play, and peppering the opposing netminder. But in what was easily their most complete performance of the season they were on the wrong side of the scoresheet.

"It's amazing isn't it?" said an optimistic Randy Carlyle late Wednesday night. "That's what pro sports [is], there's always something that happens that makes you shake your head. By far was our best effort in the last couple months, but no reward for it."

Despite outshooting their opponent for just the fourth time all season – yielding just 23 shots while firing 39 at rookie netminder Martin Jones – the Leafs ultimately fell for the 12th time in the past 18 games (6-9-3), edged 3-1 by the savvy L.A. Kings at the ACC.

In control of the play for the better part of 60 minutes – while playing without the suspended Dion Phaneuf – the Leafs more closely resembled the plucky, feisty group they were for so much of last season. Energetic on the forecheck, feisty on the backcheck, and finally effective at moving the puck out of the defensive zone, there was a lot to like for the home side in defeat.

"I've got no complaints with the work ethic of our group," said Carlyle. "We executed from a defensive standpoint. We made good breakout passes, we attacked, we forechecked, but we didn't win. Simple as that."

"It's what we were discussing and what we needed to do to give ourselves better chances to win games," said Cody Franson, the 26-year-old who scored his first goal of the year in defeat.

No team in the NHL has yielded more shots nightly than the Leafs this season – 37 per game prior to Wednesday's game – but against the Kings it was something different entirely. Facing his former team for the first time, Jonathan Bernier saw just 23 shots or about half of the 44 he had faced on average in his previous four starts.

"We definitely played our best game of the year tonight," said Bernier. "We deserve a better fate."

"Be better on the defensive side of the puck and in turn that'll give us more good offensive chances," said Franson. "It showed tonight. We really paid attention to the details of defence and we were able to keep them to a lower shot count than us for the first time in a while. We had some good chances, we just didn't score enough tonight."

Coming off back-to-back shutouts, Jones stopped 38 of 39 shots, including an impressive stop on Joffrey Lupul shortly after Franson scored the lone Leaf goal.

Jones held the Kings in it long enough for Jeff Carter to score the go-ahead marker midway through the final period, a bad pinch from Paul Ranger ending up in the back of the net.

The Leafs were fortunate to swipe many victories in the opening two months on the shoulders of goaltending and a terrific power-play, but rare was the game in which their performance rarely wavered from start to finish. Despite falling short of the desired result, this was one of those nights.

Amid a difficult portion of the schedule – the Blues, Blackhawks and Penguins are up next – more of the same will be needed in the days ahead.

"If we have that type of dogged work ethic, if we can effectively move the puck out of our zone the way we did tonight and backcheck as hard and create as many offensive opportunities then we'll win our share of games," said Carlyle. "But pushing that snowball, every time you lose it gets bigger."

"We've got to build off what we've done," Mason Raymond said. "I don't think there's any question that was one of our better games we've played in a long time. The shot totals, not giving up odd-man rushes, a lot of good things you can take from it.

"Sometimes you don't deserve wins and you get them and we were on the opposite of that maybe tonight."

Five Points

1. Bernier vs. L.A.

Then the head coach of the Anaheim Ducks, Carlyle got his first glimpse of Jonathan Bernier in London, England at the O2 Arena on Sept. 29, 2007.

It was the first start of Bernier's NHL career and the outset of the 2007-08 season. "He was a young kid then," Carlyle recalled of the now 25-year-old Leafs netminder, drafted by the Kings in the first round of the 2006 Draft. Bernier stopped 26 of 27 shots that day across the pond, backstopping Los Angeles to a 4-1 win. "For an 18-year-old to come out of junior hockey and start in the NHL it was quite a feat," said Carlyle.

Starting against his former team for the first time, Bernier made 20 saves. He was beaten five-hole by Carter for the eventual game-winner.

Speaking prior to the game, Carlyle said the Leafs were "very, very fortunate" to have Bernier on their side.

"There's been a focus right from the day we acquired him that he was going to be our starting goaltender, he was going to be this, he was going to be that, he was here to seize the opportunity, seize the job, and he hasn't disappointed," said Carlyle of Bernier, who owns a .927 save percentage this season.

2. Rielly Checks In

Simplicity was the message for Morgan Rielly as he re-entered the lineup on Wednesday night.

"The simple things are the best way to go right now," Carlyle said in regards to Rielly prior to the game. "Make the simple play; make the good first pass, take the body, stop progression, jump up in the play when you have an opportunity, but move the puck. Move the puck, move it effectively. Don't try to do too much."

Paired with Jake Gardiner for the first time all season, the 19-year-old logged nearly 20 minutes against the Kings, replacing John-Michael Liles on the Toronto back-end. Rielly had been a healthy scratch in the previous three games.

 "We felt Morgan Rielly's worked hard and is deserved of an opportunity and we'll make decisions again for the next one [Thursday] night," said Carlyle.

3. Defensive Effort

Among the more encouraging elements of the Leafs game in defeat was the ferocity with which they defended, eliminating many of the odd-man opportunities which had plagued their game in October and November. Especially impressive for the group in that regard was the effort of the forwards on the backcheck.

"If you're not giving up odd-man rushes it makes easy on a goaltender and the shot numbers as I kind of mentioned earlier," said Raymond.

"We were better on the defensive side of the puck," said Franson. "Our forwards worked real hard on our forecheck and they backchecked hard all night and made it an easier night on [the defence] to make reads when to jump in and when to back out."
 
The 23 shots against was the second fewest for the Leafs all season. Back on Nov. 25, they yielded just 22 in a 6-0 blowout loss to Columbus.

4. Welcome to the NHL

It was the lockout year (2005-06) and a young Jason Spezza was playing in Jerry D'Amigo's hometown of Binghamton, New York. D'Amigo was just in bantam hockey then, but it was there at a team function with the Senators AHL affiliate – spaghetti dinner! – that he met Spezza. Befitting of his welcome into the NHL, the 22-year-old lined against the Senators captain over the weekend and was suitably in awe.

"It was just crazy just seeing him out there and playing against him," D'Amigo told the Leaf Report. "I actually thought to myself 'I'm like wow this actually really happened'."

5. Road to the NHL

Picked in the sixth round of the 2009 Draft, D'Amigo played in 208 games with the Marlies before finally getting his first NHL opportunity with the Leafs.

"It's definitely been awhile," said D'Amigo, limited to just under five minutes against the Kings. "The three years I spent in the minors, it seems like a long time, but when [I was called up] obviously everything kind of flushes from your mind and you don't think about that stuff anymore. You just think about that you're here and you're not wanting to leave basically."

D'Amigo arrived at his first NHL training camp in the fall of 2010 amid considerable hype and (probably unfair) expectation. There was even talk that he might crack the Leafs opening night lineup. But when that failed to materialize the buzz on the former American World Junior star quieted down to the point of his long-awaited debut against the Stars on Dec. 5.

"It was one of those things where I had high hopes to make it, but I didn't know how hard it was going to be and then I sort of got that," D'Amigo said. "You want to think it's going to happen soon, but it doesn't. It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of learning of systems, learning how to prepare on and off the ice basically and that's what I had to do the past couple years to sharpen those tools a little bit and be where I am now."

Former Marlies coach and now Oilers bench boss Dallas Eakins often spoke of the need for D'Amigo and other young Toronto prospects to learn what it takes to become a professional. "And you don't really notice it until it happens, until you see the progression that you've made," D'Amigo said. "I can see my first year, my weight, my eating habits were terrible. I've had guys along the way that helped me, especially Dallas, and a lot of other coaches and players as well."

Stats Pack

6-9-3 – Leafs record over the past 18 games.

4 – Games this season in which the Leafs have outshot their opponent.

4 – Consecutive games with a point for Jake Gardiner. Gardiner has a goal and three assists in that span and now has 10 points in 31 games this season.

19:28 – Minutes for Morgan Rielly against the Kings.

1 – Goal for Cody Franson this season, scoring his first against the Kings on a five-on-three advantage.

216 – Consecutive games streak snapped Wednesday for Dion Phaneuf, who served the first of a two-game suspension against the Kings.

9 – Consecutive games in which the Leafs have allowed a power-play goal.

6 – Shots for David Clarkson against the Kings, a season-high.

35-21 – Shots advantage for the Leafs at even-strength.

Special Teams Capsule

PP: 1-3
Season: 24 per cent (4th overall)

PK: 1-2
Season: 76.6 per cent (27th overall)

Quote of the Night

"Sometimes you don't deserve wins and you get them and we were on the opposite of that maybe tonight."

-Mason Raymond, on falling to the Kings despite the largely positive performance.

Up Next

The Leafs get right back at it on Thursday night, visiting the Blues in St. Louis.

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