The Maple Leafs couldn’t take advantage of a strong start on Saturday as their offence dried up in a 5-1 loss to the Boston Bruins. With back-up goalie Garret Sparks making just his third start of the season on the second night of a back-to-back for Toronto, the Leafs struggled to contain the Bruins’ top players and suffered their first defeat on the road as a result. Toronto now moves to 11-6-0 on the year.
Bruins’ big line swallows up Leafs
Toronto couldn’t have drawn up a better start to the first period of Saturday’s game - except for the fact they had no goals to show for their efforts by the end of the frame. Despite having played the night before at home in a 6-1 victory over New Jersey, Toronto looked like the more rested team as it jumped all over the Bruins offensively with 66-per-cent possession and a 20-6 shot margin over the game’s first 20 minutes. Toronto had also entered the game leading the NHL in goals scored on the road with 5.33 per game, but with the Bruins’ containing them to the outside, Toronto simply couldn’t score, and that would come back to bite them later on.
Once the Patrice Bergeron line with Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak got rolling late in the opening frame though, the Leafs were on their heels in a big way. It was Bergeron striking first with a deflection past Garret Sparks on only the sixth Bruins’ shot of the game, marking the first time the Leafs had given up the first goal in a game on the road since Oct. 13 in Washington.
Next it was Pastrnak who would victimize the Leafs repeatedly on his way to scoring a hat trick. He tallied the first goal when Bergeron sent a no-look, cross-ice pass for him to bury top-shelf on Sparks (while falling to the ice at that), and then quickly after that on the power play, courtesy of another cross-crease pass from Bergeron. Pastrnak finished the job in the third period with another man advantage goal from the right circle.
All told, the Bruins’ top line produced nine points, and dominated the Leafs in possession at 59-per-cent when they were on the ice. In response, the Leafs’ top line of John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman came up with Toronto’s only goal of the night, when Tavares potted his 10th of the season late in the second period.
The whole thing was an unfortunate flashback of sorts for the Leafs, who saw that Bergeron trio put up 30 points over the course of a first-round playoff series last spring that Toronto lost in Game 7 on Bruins’ ice.
Sparks struggles to keep up
When Sparks took the crease in Boston on Saturday, it was the first time he had started a game for Toronto in 26 days, dating back to a 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Oct. 15. Whether it was the potent Bruins’ top line or rust from a lack of game action, Sparks wasn’t sharp enough for the Leafs when they needed it.
Sparks saw limited touches while the Leafs dominated possession in the first, but then gave up three goals on 14 shots, the first two coming off a soft deflection by Bergeron right in front of him and then to an off-balance Pastrnak in the circle.
There wasn’t much Sparks could do on Pastrnak’s third goal from that same spot, this time while the Bruins were on a four-minute power play. But Sparks was late to react on the Bruins’ fifth goal, where Joakim Nordstrom capitalized on a defensive zone turnover by Morgan Rielly to go five-hole on an unobstructed Sparks.
Mike Babcock has established a goalie routine the last two seasons where Frederik Andersen carries the load in net and his back-up plays infrequently, mostly on the second night of a back-to-back. That worked out well for Toronto when a seasoned, career-long back-up like Curtis McElhinney was behind Andersen for the last season-and-a-half. Sparks isn’t that.
The 25-year-old may have posted a 2-0-0 record in his first two starts of the season, but one came three games into the season and the other was an unscheduled start a week later when Andersen was dealing with a knee injury. Babcock will have to decide whether Saturday’s 29-save performance with an .853 save percentage was a one-off for Sparks, or if an adjustment to the routine is in order.
No longer road warriors
Only Toronto and Nashville had managed to stay undefeated on the road this season going into Saturday’s schedule, and now only the Predators are perfect away from home, while the Leafs drop to 6-1-0.
When it came to playing away from Scotiabank Arena before Saturday, the Leafs weren’t just getting positive results; they were dominating the opposition. Before Boston, the biggest deficit Toronto had faced on the road was a 2-0 hole against the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 7, and overall they had outscored opponents 32-17. In fact, the fewest goals Toronto had produced so far in a road game was four, but after a rousing first period effort they had little answer for how Boston took over from there with 66-per-cent possession in the second and 50-per-cent in the third.
Yo-yoing special teams
The Leafs had successfully completed 14 straight kills, dating back to Nov. 1, when the Bruins went on their second power play of the game midway through the middle frame, and Pastrnak broke through with a score. The penalty killing unit that was out for Toronto was fatigued by the time of the goal, after good pressure by the Bruins throughout the power play made it impossible to get a change. They gave up another power play goal to Pastrnak in the third on a double-minor infraction to Kasperi Kapanen (high-sticking), to drop the kill to a mediocre 2-for-4 on the night.
Meanwhile, the Leafs power play had been stalling of late as well, going 0-for-5 in the team’s last two outings. The Leafs first man advantage chance in Boston resulted in nine shots on Halak, but still no goals. Their second power play didn’t officially produce a goal either, but it may as well have - Tavares’ marker came after the man advantage had expired, but it was set up entirely by the Leafs’ ongoing momentum from that second power play when the Bruins’ penalty killers and Halak were worked over by a persistent Leafs’ group. Toronto’s power finished 0-for-3 but put 17 shots on goal over those opportunities, compared to 22 by the Left at even strength.
Blue and White Trending
Tracking Leafs’ trends all season long
Saturday was the first time this season the Leafs haven’t scored a power play goal on the road when they had more than one man advantage chance (Toronto has the second-best road power play in the NHL at 36.8 per cent)
Toronto continues its four-game road trip on Tuesday in Los Angeles.