TORONTO – To try and resurrect the flailing Maple Leafs midway through Thursday’s game against Dallas, Kyle Clifford knew what he had to do.
As Toronto sat in a 2-0 hole, Clifford dropped the gloves with Stars defenceman Jamie Oleksiak off a draw in the second period, for a swift tilt that provided Toronto a crucial, but ultimately unsustainable boost, in the eventual 3-2 loss.
“Clifford got his fight, and the emotion and the energy level of the game changed significantly. Players responded very well,” acknowledged head coach Sheldon Keefe. “And then we started to come. But that didn't last long enough for us; we didn't get an even-strength goal to build on the power play goal [Auston Matthews] got. And then we're coming still, pushing to start the third, and we're shorthanded before we know it. You can't spot a team like that [a] goal.”
The loss was Toronto’s fourth in its last six games, the third in regulation, and dropped the club to 30-20-8 on the season. The Leafs also lost forward Andreas Johnsson to a knee injury after the first period, something Keefe said will not be a short-term issue for the winger.
Toronto wound up trailing Dallas for almost the entire night on Thursday, giving up the first goal to Denis Gurianov on the game’s first shot just 1:20 into the first period. It would prove to be a pattern for the Leafs and returning starter Frederik Andersen, who ceded a goal on the opening shot of every frame in the game over a 16-save performance.
Matthews had the only score for the Leafs – a career-high 41st of the season scored on a man advantage chance just after Clifford’s fight – until Zach Hyman broke through late in the third. Those shifts following the fisticuffs were some of the Leafs’ best all game, but the team’s overall inconsistency did them in.
“[The fight] had a huge impact; that was kind of the turning point for us,” Matthews said. “It got the guys on the bench to kind of wake up and that's when I think we got the momentum back on our side. I thought we channeled the inner part of the rink much more and started generating some chances, but we just kind of ran out of time there at the end.”
Thursday marked the fourth game of Clifford’s career in Toronto, just over a week after he was traded to Toronto from Los Angeles with goaltender Jack Campbell. But while Clifford was having his biggest impact in a Leafs sweater to date, Andersen had a less successful night making his return to the ice.
The netminder was back in action after missing four games with a neck injury suffered last Monday, and played shakily throughout. With Gurianov’s early score already on the board, Toronto saw its deficit double when Radek Faksa scored with the first shot of the second period, marking back-to-back five-hole strikes through Andersen.
Matthews’ goal had the Leafs down by just one going into the third, but early in the frame John Tavares was called for tripping and Tyler Seguin capitalized with the first shot of that period, halting his 17-game goal drought by putting Dallas up 3-1.
Andersen said he “felt pretty good” about his game on the whole, and Keefe was less concerned with how many pucks went by Andersen than he was with the lack of help his teammates offered their goaltender.
“We made it really challenging for him,” lamented Keefe. “He hasn't played and first shot of the game, guy is coming in alone from the top of the circles in. There were no easy shots coming at him. So, probably a little tougher game for him in that sense but we got to do a better job for him in terms of getting him goals and getting him help and support.”
The Leafs went on to press valiantly in the waning minutes of regulation, allowing Hyman to bring Toronto within one with 1:19 remaining in the third. But by then it was too little, too late to right the wrongs already done.
“We were a little disconnected tonight,” said Jake Muzzin. “Sometimes we want to play fast, and other times we want to build. And I felt that we were sometimes, as defencemen, too slow with the puck and that's kudos to [Dallas] as well for being very structured in the neutral zone and taking away options.”
The Leafs’ inability to adjust their game and generate offence was a glaring issue throughout the night, even while limiting Dallas’ own opportunities against Andersen. But the mistakes Toronto made still ended up in its net, and so Keefe will go back to the drawing board to figure out where the middle ground is for the Leafs to have success.
“You have to adapt for sure and I didn't think we did a good job of that,” Keefe said. “It's something where you can get a little bit frustrated at times, but that doesn't help our cause. It seems like the better we've played defensively, we've gotten worse offensively. We haven't struck that balance that we want to have."