LAS VEGAS -- For the first time in franchise history, the Toronto Maple Leafs took on the Vegas Golden Knights at their desert dwelling - and the result is one the visitors would rather forget in a hurry. Facing the Golden Knights in a rare afternoon tilt, the Leafs were on their heels early and never recovered, falling 6-3. It was the first time Toronto has allowed more than four goals-against since Nov. 4 against St. Louis. The loss moves the Leafs to 23-15-2 on the season.
Whether real or imagined, the perceived Vegas Flu has allegedly helped the Golden Knights to what is now a league-leading 16-2-1 record at home. Toronto stayed well off the famous Strip last night to avoid any extraneous temptations, but they still looked outmatched from the early goings on in the first period.
Toronto’s defensive play was especially sub-par in the opening minutes, and it cost them two goals-against in 4:17. A Golden Knights two-on-one got them set up in the Leafs’ zone ahead of Pierre-Edouard Bellmare’s initial strike, and William Karlsson followed up in short order with a goal off the rush. Then it was David Perron going high-glove on Frederik Andersen to put Vegas up 3-0 on just eight shots.
Toronto’s first period possession hovered around 35 percent and their struggles combating the Golden Knights’ forecheck and turning pucks over continued into the second. Patrick Marleau slipped a puck under Malcolm Subban’s pad to get Toronto on the board early in the middle frame, but the Vegas lead was back to three in a hurry when Martin Marincin tried to bank a puck off the end board only to have it hit a ref and bounce right to the Golden Knights for another Karlsson strike.
Auston Matthews got one back before the end of the frame, but Toronto never looked on the same level as their opponent through the first 40 minutes. Matthews came calling again just 27 seconds into the third period to further cut the Golden Knights’ lead down to 4-3. But the Golden Knights got behind the Leafs’ defence once again, and Jonathan Marchessault capitalized on a gaping net to restore Toronto’s two-goal deficit.
By the time Karlsson scored an empty-netter, and hats rained down in honour of the Golden Knights’ first-ever hat trick, the Leafs were assured their second straight loss.
Among the first comments Mike Babcock made after Sunday’s loss is that defence is a five-man unit, and the entire team was guilty of breakdowns against Vegas. But there’s no denying the Leafs backend had a rough afternoon in Sin City. The speedy Golden Knights got into the offensive zone quickly and their forecheck was tough for Toronto to contend with. When they did get possession back, the Leafs’ season-long issue with their breakouts frequently cropped up, with play repeatedly stalling in the neutral zone.
Sunday was the second straight game with Martin Marincin in the lineup over Connor Carrick, and while Marincin was solid in Colorado on Friday, he made a number of poor decisions with the puck against Vegas that led to turnovers and one goal-against.
Marincin finished at a team-low minus-two, along with Roman Polak. Since stepping into the lineup nightly back on Nov. 25, Polak has been inconsistent. Against especially fast teams like Vegas he is often a beat behind and loses track of his assignment. Polak is also penalized frequently as a result. Since Nov. 25, he’s tied for having been assessed the most penalties in the league (10) and was called once for slashing on Sunday as he chased after the Golden Knights forwards around the net.
In that same span, the Leafs have only been called for 20 penalties as a group. Morgan Rielly said after Sunday’s loss that in the season’s half there are a number of areas the Leafs defence needs to improve, but didn’t name specifics. No doubt the return of Nikita Zaitsev, expected sometime in mid-January after the Leafs’ bye-week, will have a positive impact.
Road to one hundred
The Leafs were on their way to being embarrassed by the Golden Knights when Matthews’ late period strike gave them momentum to cling to for the final frame. And as soon as he tapped in Morgan Rielly’s shot on Subban early in the third, the Leafs looked as alive as they had all game.
The score was the 100th point of Matthews’ career, in his 112th career game. He required the third-fewest games among Leafs in the NHL’s expansion era to reach the 100-point threshold. It wasn’t that Matthews was without flaw against the Golden Knights, but he made the most of his opportunities when they were presented. Like the rest of the Leafs, he seemed to get better as the game went on.
In the third period, Matthews showed off his impressive strength on the puck to keep Toronto rolling in the offensive zone, and his line with William Nylander and Zach Hyman came closest to getting an equalizer. Matthews finished the game with three shots on goal and 50 percent possession, while his line overall was the Leafs’ best in possession at 52 percent. Sunday also marked Matthews’ first two-goal game since Nov. 18th in Montreal when he returned from a four-game absence due to injury.
In the category of small victories for the Leafs, their penalty kill gave them a solid chance to complete the comeback against Vegas by holding them off the scoresheet with the extra man.
Despite penalties going to Polak, Marincin and Jake Gardiner, all players who have played a bigger role on the penalty kill since Zaitsev went down with injury, Toronto rallied against the 12th-ranked home power play in the league.
On their three power play chances, Vegas got only two shots on Andersen, while Leo Komarov and Zach Hyman both generated two solid shorthanded chances the other way. It was an important bounce-back game for that unit, after they were on the ice for Nathan MacKinnon’s game-winning goal in overtime on Friday.
Considering the Leafs next stretch includes three games against three of the best power play teams in the league in Tampa Bay, San Jose and Vancouver, that confidence could prove valuable. It wasn’t all rosy on special teams though, with Toronto failing to convert on any of their three power play chances either against Vegas. They finished with four shots on goal with the extra man.
The Leafs head back to Toronto to start a six-game home stand against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday.