TORONTO – The Maple Leafs didn’t quit in the third period on Wednesday. In fact, the final frame in their 5-4 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks was the best they played all game. The problem was it took overcoming an atrocious first period for Toronto to reach the point where too little, too late was even an option.
It was defensive mistakes that piled up early, putting the Leafs down 4-0 to Chicago after 20 minutes, and 5-0 by midway through the second frame. Toronto didn’t even score its first goal until 93 seconds remained in the middle period, and while the comeback bid came tantalizingly close to fruition in the Leafs’ 29-shot third period, it wasn’t enough to undo those prior inadequacies.
“We hold each other accountable in this room, and we have to look across the room and obviously step it up. It’s unacceptable,” said Auston Matthews, who skated in his 200th career game. “We can’t be doing that at this point in the season with these important points on the line. We’re fighting for home ice [in the playoffs] and we have to step it up. It starts with that first period; we have to be ready from the get-go.”
Toronto knows all about bad starts, having most recently turned one in during Monday's 6-2 loss to Tampa Bay. And yet, the problem continues to resurface, forcing the Leafs to battle back at a time in the season when it’s increasingly difficult to do so, especially against teams like Chicago that are fighting for their playoff lives.
“If I had the answer right now, it wouldn’t be an issue because we would address it,” said Morgan Rielly of the team’s slow beginnings. “It’s just a blip; that’s the goal anyway. We don’t want it to last. We didn’t put ourselves in good position with the way we started but we have to be happy with how we battled back. Moving forward, it’s not a start we want to repeat.”
On paper at least, the Leafs should have been in control of Wednesday’s matchup. Only the Ottawa Senators had averaged more goals-against per game than the Blackhawks (3.70) going into the tilt, while the Leafs were averaging the third-most goals per game (3.57). But Chicago appeared practically impenetrable for most of two periods, while the Leafs were careless and unfocused defensively.
It didn’t help that Toronto’s list of unavailable parties increased right before the game, with Zach Hyman (flu) joining Jake Gardiner (back), Travis Dermott (shoulder) and Kasperi Kapanen (concussion) among the Leafs’ walking wounded. Touting their depth has been a standby for Toronto all season, though, and they made it clear on Wednesday the loss didn’t reflect who wasn’t playing, but the execution of those who were.
“We didn’t play hard enough, we weren’t quick enough leaving our own zone, didn’t skate good enough, didn’t compete at a high enough level,” said Mike Babcock. “The reality is, you can all stand in the right spots, but you have to compete at a high enough level. I just didn’t think we started good enough.”
The Leafs weren’t really in bad position until halfway through the first, when Duncan Keith’s shot had already dribbled through Frederik Andersen’s five-hole but before Brendan Perlini’s wrister through Andersen made it 2-0 Chicago. The dominos kept falling from there, first with Dominik Kahun scoring on a two-on-one with Patrick Kane, and then when Toronto’s fourth line got caught against Chicago’s top unit and a wide-open Brandon Saad made it 4-0 Blackhawks.
Andersen didn’t return to his net after the first, pulled for the second straight game in favour of Garret Sparks. And while Toronto still couldn’t generate any offence before Alex DeBrincat went in alone on Sparks to make it 5-0, the team refused to count itself out.
“You don’t have a choice,” Rielly said. “You look at each other and you expect more from one another and you push each other to be better. It’s important you make it clear you have to bring more work ethic, win more battles, do all the little things we talk about and make sure when you go out, it’s clear we’re not going to roll over.”
And the Leafs did not. Two days after Matthews said his team “pretty much quit” while facing a four-goal deficit against Tampa, Toronto left it all on the ice this time around.
Andreas Johnsson got the ball rolling with a goal late in the second period, followed up by Matthews’ goal early in the third. Chicago had pulled Corey Crawford due to illness by that point, replacing him with Collin Delia for a true battle of the back-ups in net. Rielly kept the Leafs’ momentum going with a power play goal, and Tavares had them within one when only 89 seconds remained in regulation.
But not even firing 29 shots on goal in the final 20 minutes could get Toronto over the hump, not with so much on the line as clubs inch towards the postseason.
“It’s the end of the season now, stuff is ramping up, it’s pretty much playoff hockey,” said Matthews. “That’s two games in a row where we haven’t started well and it’s cost us big time. Guys came in pretty pissed off [after the first] and motivated to get back out there... we crawled our way back but it wasn’t enough.”
“I thought we came out and worked hard [in the third],” added Rielly. “We put ourselves in a hole, and it was too little too late. Last period is great, [but] you look at the start and the position we put ourselves in after the first period, that’s the problem.”
Now all Toronto has left to do is find a solution.
“We have to worry about what we’re going to do on a daily basis,” Tavares said. “How we’re going to execute and play the way we’re going to play, the identity we’re going to play with. If we do that, that will allow us to get to where we want to get to and get the results we need.”
Here’s your chance, kid
Even before Babcock knew Hyman wouldn’t be available Wednesday, he talked in his morning press conference about taking hold of opportunities when they come. For William Nylander, that meant making good on yet another chance to skate on Auston Matthews’ wing, and the winger put together one of his best games in weeks against Chicago.
Nylander had Crawford beat with two shots before Toronto even got on the board, hitting the post on both but not halting his search for a goal. When the Leafs' comeback got into full swing, he was in the thick of it, winning puck battles, lifting sticks at both ends of the ice and ultimately registering two assists, on goals by Johnsson and Matthews. It was Nylander’s first multi-point game since Feb. 27, a much-needed boost after he registered only one assist in his previous six games.
Trevor Moore didn’t have quite the same success grabbing his opportunity, and it was a big one at that. With Hyman out, Moore took his spot on Tavares’ flank with Mitch Marner on the other, but it was quickly apparent that matching up against some of the Blackhawks’ top players was a jarring adjustment for Moore after skating primarily with Leafs’ fourth liners Frederik Gauthier and Tyler Ennis.
On that unit, Moore could use his speed and relative heaviness to hound out pucks, hold onto them and create scoring chances. But the tougher assignment put Moore on his heels a bit more, with less time to make plays and transition. He swapped spots with Patrick Marleau onto Nazem Kadri’s line after the first period, and finished minus-one, with four shots on goal, in a career-high 14:08 time on ice.
Andersen hooked (again)
Before Monday, Andersen hadn’t been pulled from a game all season. After 20 minutes of action on Tuesday, he had been pulled twice in two games. That hasn’t happened since Andersen joined the Leafs in 2016-17.
In both instances, Andersen allowed four early goals, and Babcock made the quick decision to give the net to Sparks. In Wednesday’s outing, Andersen was left hanging by poor defensive play and bad coverage from his teammates as Chicago scored three of its first four goals off the rush. But the goalie wasn’t without fault, particularly on Keith’s shot that squirted out behind him, and on Perlini’s wrister that he had a good look on.
At this stage of the season, extra rest can’t hurt Andersen, even if racking up the goals against isn’t how he’d like it to come. He finished Wednesday’s game with 10 saves and a .714 save percentage.
Johnsson breaks the ice
It’s been Vancouver Canucks rookie Elias Pettersson courting the headlines among NHL freshmen this season, but Johnsson has quietly put together a strong second half to his own rookie campaign as well. Johnsson’s second period goal not only broke a six-game goalless slump for the winger, it was his 20th of the season, second only to Pettersson among first-years around the league.
Despite a slow start to the year, where Johnsson had zero goals in his first 10 games and spent time as a healthy scratch, his overall success has made the 24-year-old a feel-good story of sorts. Selected in the seventh-round, 202nd overall, in 2013 by Toronto, Johnsson has battled his way through injuries and tough American Hockey League seasons to be a solid 20-goal contributor for Toronto. And Johnsson is only the 14th seventh-round choice to ever score 20 as a rookie.
While it’s unlikely he’ll challenge Pettersson for the Calder Trophy, Johnsson’s stats show how well he has progressed to date.
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The Leafs put up 47 shots on the Blackhawks, their third-most this season, and most in a home game.
Toronto continues its homestand on Friday against the Philadelphia Flyers.
“We talk about it every day. No question, we have to go out there and execute. It’s definitely something that has to be a priority for us. We address it every single day, it’s an important focus. The margin for error becomes smaller and smaller and as a group we have to understand that, and that one or two mistakes can mean a lot.”
- John Tavares, on the Leafs’ recurring defensive struggles in the first period of games