The Maple Leafs threw a season-high 56 shots at the New York Rangers on Sunday, but couldn't manage more than a single goal past Alexandar Georgiev in a 4-1 road loss. Playing on the second night of a back-to-back, Garret Sparks was in the crease for Toronto, turning aside 27 shots while the Leafs saw their four-game win streak come to a halt. Toronto moves to 34-18-3 on the season.
Big numbers, no results
In a game where the Maple Leafs put a season-high 56 shots on New York Rangers back-up goalie Alexandar Georgiev and controlled possession for most of the night at 56-percent, they came away with only one goal and one big loss.
Facing the fourth-worst team in the Eastern Conference on the second night of a back-to-back, the Leafs weren’t prepared for the Rangers early push, and for the second straight game, were down within the first minute of the opening frame.
It was only 28 seconds into the action when Mika Zibanejad, one-third of the Rangers’ swarming top line, potted the early marker to put the Leafs in a hole.
Toronto didn’t sit back though, taking over possession and keeping the pressure firmly on the Rangers with a 21-1 advantage in shots. Kasperi Kapanen finally evened the score halfway through the first frame with a breakaway chance past Georgiev, and the Leafs were emboldened to press for more.
But as has so frequently been the case for Toronto, a defensive miscue, this time by Ron Hainsey, cost them a goal. Streaking into the offensive zone unobstructed, Jimmy Vesey beat Sparks short side with the Rangers’ fifth shot of the game, not only restoring their one-goal lead but shifting momentum away from the visitors.
Toronto entered the second period having put 22 shots on Georgiev, but the back-up kept stymying the Leafs, even as they controlled possession at 65-percent in that frame and peppered him with 17 shots. The futility on Toronto’s part was reminiscent of their game against Tampa on Dec. 13, where the Leafs blasted 49 shots at Andrei Vasilevskiy only to lose the game, 4-1.
Mike Babcock shortened his bench in the third looking for an equalizer, but the Rangers continued to frustrate the Leafs with well-placed sticks and boxing out in front of their net.
New York hardly managed extended zone time in the third, but they managed to hem Auston Matthews’ line with Kapanen and Patrick Marleau into their own end for over a minute, and when Jake Muzzin sent a lazy pass to the point right on Adam McQuaid’s tape, the defenceman rifled the one-timer past Sparks.
Kevin Hayes added an empty-netter to secure the win and send Toronto off on the strength of Georgiev’s excellent goaltending and an overall stronger defensive effort from the Rangers than the Leafs put together.
Lacking in Spark
Perhaps it’s the long layoff between starts for Sparks, but the first period of his last three games have all produced the same result: two goals in the net and a 2-1 deficit for the Leafs.
Toronto’s back-up goalie generally only plays the second night of back-to-backs, which come around a few times per month. Before facing New York, Sparks had earned only two starts, against Florida and Pittsburgh, dating back to Jan. 18. In those outings and on Sunday, the starts were eerily similar.
In New York, Sparks gave up a sloppy first goal to Zibanejad, unable to hold the pressuring first line at bay. Then when Vesey came rushing in on the wing late in the opening frame, Sparks had a clean look, but was down quickly and Vesey’s wrister beat him high short side.
With two goals-against on five shots, Sparks was in familiar territory, and just like those previous contests, he responded with a tighter game between the pipes. The Leafs aided their goaltender by keeping play in the Rangers’ end, but Sparks was also called upon to make some tough saves in the third period to hold Toronto within striking distance for a time.
It wouldn’t last, though. McQuaid’s goal was a floating shot from the blue line, and Sparks was down early, so the puck whizzed over his outstretched glove similar to how Vesey beat him in the first. It was a disappointing sequence all around for the Leafs, and Sparks looked dejectedly to the ice as soon as the goal lamp was lit. He finished with 27 stops for an .897 save percentage.
Sparks’ record now moves to 7-4-1 on the season, while he’s 1-3-0 in his last four starts with 11 goals-against.
Power play perking up?
It’s not that Toronto’s struggling power play finally converted against the Rangers; it actually finished 0-for-4, putting those units at 1-for-18 in the Leafs’ last six games. But there were moments with the extra man where the Leafs didn’t look as predictable and ineffective as recent games, interspersed with fewer sequences where they looked stagnant once again.
Toronto started off well enough on their first power play, registering six shots on net in the two-minute span while being thwarted repeatedly by acrobatic goaltending from Georgiev. The Leafs appeared to be invigorated, crowding the crease and cycling the puck well to create chances for every skater on Toronto’s top unit.
From there, the other power play tries weren’t as strong, but the Leafs did attempt to show off some new looks, rotating players differently down low and moving the puck more quickly with more precision.
The changes could have something to do with how Mike Babcock was seen in heated conversation with assistant coach Jim Hiller, who runs the power play, on the bench during Saturday’s game in Montreal after those units went 0-for-3. Whatever the reason, it was among the first times all season the Leafs have shown some true adjustment on the power play, and even if the results weren’t there, the effort reflected much better on the man advantage.
One old trick that did resurface, though, in Sunday’s game was the drop pass zone entry, a favourite move of Jake Gardiner’s on Toronto’s second group. It didn’t yield a lot of positive results, but was another example of how the Leafs are attempting to switch things up in multiple facets of their power play.
Back to life
Right from the first period, Nazem Kadri’s line with Connor Brown and William Nylander had impressive push, and they kept on top of the Rangers as well as any Toronto line in Sunday’s matchup.
It was good pressure from that group in the offensive zone that drew the game’s first penalty less than three minutes into the contest, with Toronto already trailing 1-0 and needing an opportunity to score quickly. In the first period alone, Kadri had seven shots and Nylander was all over the Rangers’ end.
Kadri would finish with 12 shots on net, not only a career-high, but also the first time he’s ever reached double-digit shot totals.
Nylander emerged even stronger in the second period, showing off some of that speed and skill that’s helped him score two goals in his last four games. After a slow start to his shortened season, Nylander is finally able to get separation on defenders in the offensive zone, creating space for himself to shoot. Babcock has long called for Nylander to play harder on the puck and he showed that as well on Sunday, battling in the neutral zone and forcing turnovers.
The efforts of Kadri and Nylander didn’t turn into points on the scoresheet, but they were among the Leafs’ most effective players on an off-night and both boasted possession over 58-percent on the night.
With his breathtaking speed, Kapanen is known to frequently elude opponents, and the Rangers saw quickly what damage an unmarked Kapanen can do.
Left alone at the Leafs’ blue line in the first period, Kapanen intercepted a pass and took off on a breakaway towards Georgiev, blasting his shot off the post and into the net to tie the game 1-1.
The winger hadn’t scored in nine games prior to that, and was coming off a game in Montreal where he put up a career-high seven shots on goal. The relief that washed over Kapanen after the puck went past Georgiev was proof positive of how long he’d been frustrated by the lack of production.
His line with Matthews and Marleau has also been stalling lately, adding to his offensive struggles. After coming out of the bye week to start February hot, the chemistry on that unit has cooled and they struggle to hit each other with passes and get the puck out cleanly. They were out on McQuaid’s dagger of a goal in the third, unable to clear the puck once again, but prior to that error the line had been having a better showing. If Kapanen has re-ignited his scoring touch, that could pay dividends for them going forward on the road trip.
Blue and White Trending
Tracking Leafs’ trends all season long
Toronto is 1-15-2 on the season when trailing after two periods.
The Leafs continue their six-game road trip against Colorado on Tuesday.