TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs had been enjoying a dream-like start to their new NHL season. On Wednesday, they awoke to harsh reality.
Putting their 3-0 record to the test against the 2-0 New Jersey Devils at the Air Canada Centre, the Leafs turned in their most disjointed and lacklustre performance of the young season in a 6-3 loss. And head coach Mike Babcock didn’t mince words about what, exactly, was lacking.
“I was disappointed. I can’t remember the last time we played with that kind of effort,” Babcock said. “I didn’t think we worked. Their goalie [Cory Schneider] was great and all those things, I’m not taking anything away from their team, but we didn’t have any snap, we didn’t have any juice, we didn’t win any battles.”
It had been 11 years, dating back to Oct. 12, 2006, since the Devils last beat the Leafs by six goals, and just the second time Toronto had lost in regulation to New Jersey in their last 16 meetings.
Despite jumping out to an early 1-0 lead, and outshooting the Devils 50-31, nothing about the Leafs ever seemed to gel for very long. The 13 penalties assessed between the sides certainly didn’t help anyone get into a rhythm, but while the Devils played hungry, the Leafs failed to match their urgency.
“[It was a] tough one. I don’t think we played our best,” said Morgan Rielly. “That’s a good team with a lot of speed and a lot of skill. I think we made a lot of mental mistakes and got away from our game plan a little bit, and it cost us.”
Perhaps no play better encapsulated Toronto’s struggles than what transpired 14 minutes into the second period. The Leafs had a two-minute, two-man advantage and instead of using it to their benefit, seconds into the power play, Jake Gardiner, who was guilty of several egregious errors throughout the game, fumbled the puck at the blueline. He went chasing after Adam Henrique and Brian Gibbons the other way but couldn’t prevent Henrique’s initial shot on Frederik Andersen, who returned the puck back into the slot, with Gibbons potting the rebound.
It was the first 5-on-3 shorthanded goal Toronto had given up since 2011-12 and put the Leafs in a deflating 4-2 hole.
“It seemed like everything I touched tonight was bouncing,” said Gardiner. “It was one of those plays where I thought I had it in my glove and it went down and, obviously, you know the rest.”
A gaffe like that aside, what seemed to frustrate Babcock most was his feeling that the Leafs were prepared for the Devils attack but then failed to play like it. Toronto has scored 22 goals over its first four games, so generating offence hasn’t been of major concern. But protecting the puck and playing well without it, especially against a team built on speed like the Devils, was a point of emphasis lost in translation with the Leafs’ skaters.
“We talked quite a bit about this game coming up and how it was going to be, and that’s exactly what I expected but I expected us to compete,” Babcock said. “They skated us into the ground. It was 2-2 at the end of one, but that flattered us. Obviously the message sent wasn’t received these last two days. By doing the pre-scout we knew what we were in for, we didn’t do our part. Disappointing.”
The Leafs were held scoreless in the second period – the first frame this season that they have failed to notch a goal.
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Overall, the Devils did a great job not only moving the puck with authority but challenging the Leafs, especially in the offensive zone. Their active sticks broke up a lot of plays and didn’t allow the Leafs to get comfortable in their cycle game. Toronto didn’t show the same poise and adaptability they did over their first three victories, strengths they’ll look to recapture before their first meeting against a division rival – the Montreal Canadiens – on Saturday.
“We have to show a little more urgency. The effort is there, guys are trying, but certain things in games just don’t go your way,” said Nazem Kadri.
“We weren’t very good [but] it’s over with now,” added Babcock. “I didn’t think we worked. You do good things, good things happen. You cheat yourself, you look like that.”
In their second game as a pairing, freshmen Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen had a rough night against New Jersey, finishing a combined minus-5. Rosen had an especially bad outing, committing two awful turnovers that both led to Devils goals. The first came when he couldn’t settle the puck at the blueline and Miles Wood swooped in and took it in alone on Andersen to give the Devils a 2-1 lead, while the second came in the defensive zone to set up Blake Coleman’s 5-2 marker in the third period. But Borgman looked equally lost throughout the night, and was coughing the puck up too often; Babcock did split up the duo here and there, but mostly kept them together until the end. After the game, Babcock would only say “they fit in good – we weren’t very good tonight” when asked to assess the Swedish blueliners.
While Schneider turned in a masterful performance for the Devils, turning aside 47 of 50 shots and taking care of the errors his young teammates committed with some spectacular saves, Andersen had a difficult night at the other end. He entered the game with a perfect 3-0 record all-time against the Devils, and with the second-highest save-percentage of his career against an opponent (.949). New Jersey did a good job getting bodies in front of the net and screening Andersen on a pair of goals, but some of the others came from his own rebounds or on one-timed pucks he didn’t track well. Andersen finished the night with 24 saves on 31 shots for an .806 save-percentage. It was the third time in four games the Leafs have given up 30 or more shots on goal.
Nothing felt as repetitive this season as the number of penalties handed out, but special teams were once again a big factor in Wednesday’s outcome. Toronto and New Jersey entered the game tied for the most effective power plays in the league (operating at 37.5 per cent) but neither side was particularly good with the extra man. The Leafs capitalized on only two of their eight power plays – with one goal scored with a two-man advantage – while the Devils scored once on five chances. The number of infractions (13) disrupted the flow of the game at times, but the bigger issue for Toronto was that they didn’t do enough with the opportunities they had and didn’t do as good a job killing penalties as they wanted to. “You don’t see the opposing teams' power play or penalty kill too much [early], there’s only a few games to look at,” said Gardiner, who played 5:42 shorthanded. “I didn’t expect them to come that hard but even if they do we still have to be better and be ready for it.”