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Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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TORONTO – The Maple Leafs have no excuse for what happened on Monday night, nor are they accepting any offers of justification. Their spiritless performance in a 6-2 drubbing by the Tampa Bay Lightning wouldn’t be hung on a long albeit successful trip through Western Canada that ended early Sunday, or any seasonal illnesses players may be battling.

In taking on the NHL-leading Lightning, the Leafs were just bad. And there was no way to sugar coat that after the fact.

“The effort just wasn’t there at times, and in the third period we pretty much just quit,” assessed Auston Matthews, who scored one of Toronto’s two goals. “So, that’s on us as players. We have to wake up and do a much better job and hold each other accountable. They were just better than us in every way.”

Even before the hits started coming in the first period, after which Toronto trailed its visitors 2-0, the Leafs were dealt an early blow with the loss of top-six winger Kasperi Kapanen, held out for precautionary reasons related to illness. That shoved William Nylander up to his old spot alongside Matthews and Andreas Johnsson, but the Leafs stars never played like star players.  

Neither, really, did the Lightning’s big guns, who courted all the headlines leading into Monday night. In a game Tampa won by four goals, the NHL’s points leader Nikita Kucherov, top-line centre Steven Stamkos and top-pairing defenceman Victor Hedman combined for just two assists. It was Tampa’s depth that drowned the Leafs on a night the hosts were outshot 42-28.

Tyler Johnson delivered the opening salvo, deflecting a puck off his skate past Andersen for a 1-0 lead. Anthony Cirelli next deflected Mikhail Sergachev’s point blast to make it 2-0 before the end of the first. And then Johnson struck again early in the second, burying a puck that ricocheted off Andersen’s mask (hard enough to dislodge the strap) and found the winger waiting in the weeds to make it 3-0.

Within 30 seconds, Ondrej Palat put another goal past Andersen, chasing the Leafs’ starter for the first time all season in favour of backup Garret Sparks.

“They got some bounces early and I don’t think we responded that well,” Morgan Rielly said. “No excuses. There’s no reason for us not to be ready and [any lingering fatigue] is certainly not an excuse for what happened on the ice tonight.”

“We have to find a way to establish our game and grab some of that momentum back,” added John Tavares. “As frustrating as it could be, halfway through the game, we have to find a way to get our game going and execute better than we did.”

As Andersen took the fall for a poor overall team showing, Matthews came to life with an end-to-end rush and shot that beat Andrei Vasilevskiy, cutting the Leafs’ deficit to 4-1.

If Toronto still had hope of a comeback at that point, it was rapidly extinguished by their own egregious error on an ensuing power play, when an inexplicably bad line change created a three-on-one shorthanded chance the other way, and Cedric Paquette delivered a dagger past Sparks to make it 5-1 Lightning.

Rielly thought he’d been hooked prior to that play developing, and Nazem Kadri said he thought a penalty was coming, too, but one didn't materialize.

“I know personally I shouldn’t have changed when I changed. Really unacceptable,” said Tavares of the mistake. “Our execution and the will to find a way to overcome some of the things they’re doing to counter us [has to improve] and that’s just by bearing down and executing in certain areas.”

Paquette would score again in the third, deflecting a shot up and over Sparks to pad Tampa’s total. Connor Brown added a late goal with 4.2 seconds left in regulation, right before Toronto limped off with the loss.

“We were no good,” surmised coach Mike Babcock. “They were better than us from start to finish and won more battles, more races and just had more jump. We looked like a lethargic group right from the get-go, didn’t have any energy right through our whole group, didn’t skate well, didn’t execute well, weren’t good.”

Toronto had already seen Tampa twice this season, and beaten them once, so how well the Lightning play isn’t exactly a mystery. It was the Leafs’ seeming lack of preparedness to manage their attack that was most bothersome.

“I think it was a good measuring stick for us,” Matthews said. “That’s a veteran team. They obviously came out hungry…we just didn’t come ready to play. Despite bad bounces they still beat us in every area of the ice.”

Simply flushing the defeat isn’t good enough now, either. It’s too late in the year, with too few regular season games remaining before playoffs are slated to begin. If Toronto wants to be a better team in the future, there’s no shying away from the present.

“We have to learn from today,” Tavares stated. “This was a great opportunity for us. Certainly look ourselves in the mirror and look to bounce back and understand we have to be a lot better than we were today.”

TAKEAWAYS

NHL investigating alleged use of homophobic slur

During Monday's game, a microphone picked up audio of a homophobic slur being uttered on the ice.  

Toronto's general manager Kyle Dubas released the following statement after the game in regards to the alleged incident:

“The Club is aware of the reports surrounding a homophobic slur used during the Maple Leafs vs. Lightning game on Monday night. The issue of homophobia is one the Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club strongly condemns and takes very seriously. We are in communication with the NHL and are cooperating fully with their office.”

NHL PR released a similar statement and said they will have no further comment until their investigation is complete. 

Good, bad and ugly

Matthews had as fraught an outing in Monday’s game as any Leaf, punctuating some difficult defensive zone errors with a highlight-reel worthy goal to try and breathe life into his lagging team.

Given the slight skid Matthews had hit offensively prior to Monday’s game – with zero goals and two assists in his previous six games – all eyes were on the Leafs centre to deliver. The prospect of being reunited on a line with Nylander could have been the spark Matthews needed to get rolling, and he did have good jump skating throughout the game, but initially the linemate swap did nothing to jog his scoring touch.

In fact, Matthews’ first period was altogether forgettable, starting with his giveaway on a backwards pass attempt to Jake Muzzin that was intercepted and eventually shot past Andersen by Johnson to open the scoring.

Matthews’ line was out again on Palat’s goal, scored off Matthews’ lost defensive zone draw. Right after that draw is when Matthews went zone-to-zone for his 31st goal of the season, breaking out of his mini-slump and giving Toronto momentum to cling to.

But they didn’t, Matthews included. He did manage the third-highest possession total on the team at 48 per cent (the Leafs finished at 44 per cent overall), but it was clear after the game Matthews had higher expectations for his own game that what he showed against Tampa. Matthews finished with two shots on goal in 17:20 time on ice.

Andersen gets the hook

As soon as Palat’s goal went in, Babcock didn’t flinch before turning to Sparks on the Leafs bench and sending in his backup to replace Andersen. It was the first time all season Babcock had given Andersen the hook, but with four goals allowed on 19 shots and more than half a game still to play, it was in the Leafs’ best interest to make the change.

While Andersen wasn’t stellar over his 24:50 in net, the goalie was also victimized by some good deflection work by the Lightning. Both Johnson’s first goal and Cirelli’s score were re-directed, leaving Andersen with little chance of making a stop. When Palat scored, the puck deflected twice before going past him.

Andersen’s teammates came to his defence after, saying they hung the goalie out to dry.

Assessing his own game, Andersen said he “felt pretty good” but sometimes, “you don’t get the bounces.” And the bottom line for Babcock was Andersen didn’t come up with the saves Toronto needed, and jolting his team awake with a goalie change was the right course of action. Andersen ended the night with a .789 save percentage, while Sparks topped out with 21 saves and a .913 save percentage.

Devil in the details

While the Leafs held an overall edge in faceoff wins at 55 per cent over the Lightning, the draws they did lose were a key cog in the final score.

Four of Tampa’s six goals were scored nearly the same way, off offensive zone faceoff wins and quick passes that cut right through the reeling Leafs struggling to sort assignments down low.

Blue and White Trending

Tracking Leafs’ trends all season long

Monday’s loss was the fifth time this season Toronto has given up six goals in a game, and the second time in six games. The four-goal loss was tied for the largest deficit Toronto has endured in a home loss this year.

Next up

Toronto continues its homestand on Wednesday against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Last Word

“We should have showed a better effort tonight, but that being said, you’re not going to see that very often from us. We’re not quitters. We’ve never been like that; we always finish it to the end. [But] did we want a better effort? Of course.”

-        Nazem Kadri, reflecting on the Leafs’ 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning