The Maple Leafs' woeful week continued on Saturday in Ottawa, where the Senators trounced Toronto 6-2. It was the Leafs’ third loss in four games, and the fourth straight game they've given up five or more goals. Morgan Rielly and John Tavares had the markers for Toronto, while Garret Sparks made 38 saves in net. Toronto falls to 43-24-5 on the season, four points back of Boston for second place in the Atlantic Division.
In the span of six days, the Maple Leafs put themselves down by three or more goals to the team atop the NHL standings (Tampa) and at the bottom (Ottawa), en route to allowing 23 goals in their last four games. Three of those teams weren’t in playoff position either, including the Senators when they trounced Toronto 6-2 no Saturday.
Part of the problem? Toronto has become prone to bad starts. Going into Saturday’s game, the second half of a weekend back-to-back for Toronto, the Leafs had given up the first goal in each of their last three outings and been outscored in those first periods by a combined 7-1.
That was motivation enough for the Senators to press hard out of the gate, cycling the puck well and hemming Toronto in its own end. Garret Sparks was the only Leaf ready to go, making a series of early saves, but it didn’t take long for Cody Ceci to make it 1-0 Ottawa.
The Leafs not only struggled to break the puck out of their own zone with sloppy passes, they were helpless to prevent the Senators moving out of their end while registering a meagre 38 per cent possession in the first period and being outshot 17-8.
Toronto’s second frame started better offensively and on special teams with a good kill, but defensively the Leafs were still a mess and Brian Gibbons capitalized with Ottawa’s second goal of the game.
Another good kill breathed some life into the visitors, and Morgan Rielly did something with it when he fired a wrister top-shelf on Anders Nilsson and cut Ottawa’s lead to 2-1.
The Leafs kept pressing with good zone time and scoring chances, but their goaltending couldn’t keep pace, and right after Auston Matthews, who had a career-high nine shots on goal in the game, was halted on a backhand attempt by Nilsson, Magnus Paajarvi went shortside on Sparks off the rush to restore the Sens’ two-goal lead.
Paajarvi beat Sparks again before the end of the middle frame, extending Ottawa’s lead to 4-1 after 40 minutes. It was the second time in two games against Toronto that Paajarvi had registered a pair of goals, accounting for four of the nine he’s scored all season.
And for the fourth time in four games, the Leafs were down three goals, trying to mount a third-period comeback.
John Tavares got Toronto going with a 5-on-3 power play goal, his 40th of the season, to put the Leafs' deficit at 4-2, but it was all Senators after that. Anthony Duclair made it 5-2 Senators chipping a puck in Sparks’ wide open net, and Oscar Lindberg buried a big rebound from Sparks into the slot.
In a repeat of what’s been the case for Toronto all week, its defensive coverage and goaltending wasn’t good enough in Ottawa, and after scoring seven goals against Philadelphia on Friday, Toronto’s offence couldn’t come up with enough answers to stop the bleeding.
Spark goes out
Sparks’ season since returning from Christmas break has been difficult, and Saturday’s showing did nothing to help his second half improve.
In nine appearances for Toronto since Dec. 28, including Saturday’s defeat, Sparks is 2-6-0. But at least early on against Ottawa, it looked like he was on track to turn things around. Sparks was the only Leaf who started the game well, making a pair of great left pad saves to hold Ottawa at bay as long as possible.
That reprieve lasted less than seven minutes into the frame, when Ceci’s shot cut through an unscreened Sparks for the game’s opening marker. Sparks was good the rest of that frame though, stopping 16 of 17 shots while Toronto put up only eight the other way. It was in the second where his game started to slip.
Paajarvi’s first goal was another Sparks should have had, but he let the clean shot go by him shortside when Toronto had finally started gelling and desperately needed a stop. Same thing on Paajarvi’s second score, where Sparks took an aggressive angle on the shooter and saw a puck whiz by his glove.
The third wasn’t much better positionally for Sparks. Before Duclair scored, the netminder was too aggressive again challenging an initial shot and then couldn’t scramble back into the net before Duclair potted an easy goal in his wide-open cage.
Then Lindberg’s goal was a rebound chance off Ceci’s initial shot that Sparks sent right back out to the slot.
There’s no question Toronto’s haphazard defensive zone play contributed to Sparks’ struggles in the second and third, but there were times when Sparks looked more than a little off his own game and Toronto didn’t have the legs to pick him back up.
He finished the night with 38 saves and an .864 save percentage.
In the first period on Saturday, Toronto had one line going, and it was the team’s fourth unit. Frederik Gauthier, Trevor Moore and Tyler Ennis were the Leafs’ best group, full of pop and energy, playing heavy down low in the Senators end and managing to hold onto the disc instead of coughing it up and playing into Ottawa’s transition.
Theirs was the only line that managed to combine for above 50 per cent possession in the first period, and as a reward for their hard work, Babcock started Gauthier’s line in the second. On that first shift, Gauthier made a nice backcheck on Gibbons to break up a scoring play and Moore battled to get the puck back and out of the Senators’ end.
Moore was strong through a period and a half, Babcock moved him off Gauthier’s line and up to play with Nazem Kadri and Patrick Marleau in Connor Brown’s place. It’s where Moore played when Zach Hyman was battling the flu early in the week and he immediately made that unit more menacing, using his quick hands and strong body to steal and protect pucks.
The winger never turned up on the scoresheet for his efforts, but Moore’s work ethic from start to finish was higher than almost anyone. He finished with four shots on goal and an even rating in 10:47 time on ice.
Rielly racks ‘em up
With his second period goal, Rielly became just the third defenceman in Leafs history to ever score 20 goals in a season. Ian Turnbull accomplished the twice from 1975-77, and Al Iafrate also had two 20-goal seasons in 1987-88 and 1989-90.
As he has for much of the season, Rielly leads all NHL defencemen in goals. The last Leafs blueliner to do that was Babe Pratt with 17 markers in 1943-44. Rielly is also the first-ever Toronto defenceman to be the first among NHL blueliners to reach 20 goals in a single season.
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Toronto’s penalty kill was a bright spot in Saturday’s loss, going a perfect 4-for-4. That was the fifth straight game in which the Leafs haven’t given up a power play goal, their longest such streak of the season.
The Leafs hit the road again to face Nashville on Tuesday.