In awe of Kings’ men

Young Leafs lit­tle more than ad­mir­ers in boys-to-men game

Toronto Star - - SPORTS -

It was easy enough to bill Tues­day’s Leafs-Kings game as a matchup of con­trasts. It was, af­ter all, a rare meet­ing of East ver­sus West, of Toronto’s rookie-driven re­build against L.A.’s veteran-an­chored, two-Cup core.

It turned out to be a matchup of boys ver­sus men. In a 7-0 re­al­ity check that halted a Maple Leafs win streak at three games, the Kings showed how their grind-you-toa-pulp cy­cle game can eas­ily con­sume a fast-play­ing, chance-trad­ing team like the Leafs. Toronto coach Mike Bab­cock could only hope his thor­oughly schooled pupils paid at­ten­tion to their on-ice in­struc­tors in the white, black and sil­ver. At its worst, the blowout loss re­sem­bled a mis­match of stu­dents against teach­ers, ab­sent ver­sus present.

“They’ve been a good team for a long time — we’re a group that wants to get to that level,” said Mor­gan Rielly, the Toronto de­fence­man. “They showed us that we have a long way to go.”

With the com­pet­i­tive out­come not in doubt for long, there was at least an ed­u­ca­tional an­gle at play at the Air Canada Cen­tre. A cou­ple of Toronto young­sters were shar­ing ice with long-ad­mired ath­letes they’d in part pat­terned their games af­ter.

Rookie cen­tre­man Aus­ton Matthews, for one, ac­knowl­edged he had spent time study­ing to the two-way tal­ents of Anze Ko­pi­tar, the L.A. cen­tre­man 10 years his se­nior with whom Matthews has been com­pared.

“Def­i­nitely a player I al­ways like to watch,” Matthews said of the L.A. cap­tain be­fore the game.

Said Ko­pi­tar, ac­knowl­edg­ing he hadn’t spent much time watch­ing Matthews: “I can def­i­nitely see sim­i­lar­i­ties . . . He’s ob­vi­ously hav­ing a good year. But we’re go­ing to try and spoil it tonight.”

And Rielly, too, said he has moulded his game pri­mar­ily af­ter two ac­tive de­fence­men: Chicago’s Dun­can Keith and L.A.’s Drew Doughty.

“(Doughty is) al­ways car­ry­ing the puck. But he’s also re­spon­si­ble de­fen­sively,” Rielly said. “I think he’s the best de­fence­man in the league right now.”

Doughty, the 26-year-old from London, Ont., was asked how much knowl­edge he pos­sessed re­gard­ing the young Leafs.

“None,” Doughty said.

“Liv­ing in L.A., in the States, you don’t see much hockey stuff any­where.”

But when the 22-year-old Rielly’s name was men­tioned, Doughty had a mo­ment of recog­ni­tion.

“I watched him a lot on that North Amer­i­can team (in the World Cup of Hockey). He’s got all the skills in the world,” Doughty said. “He’s a great player and he’s still young. So he can still learn . . . He al­ready is a re­ally good de­fence­man in this league. But he could be one of the top ones, I think.”

Kind words, in­deed, be­fore a ruth­less dis­man­tling.

“They were com­pet­i­tive and we weren’t. I take re­spon­si­bil­ity for that,” Bab­cock said.

“We didn’t win any bat­tles. We didn’t play heavy. We didn’t fin­ish any checks. We didn’t win any races.”

Ko­pi­tar and Matthews didn’t co-min­gle much on the ice. But their sea­sons in­ter­sected with a stat in com­mon: Com­ing into Tues­day, they’d both gone six games with­out a goal. Over their re­spec­tive goal­less streaks they’d racked up a grand to­tal of one as­sist apiece. Not that Bab­cock wanted any­one to dwell on his rookie’s dry spot.

“I didn’t know (Matthews and his line­mates) weren’t pro­duc­ing,” Bab­cock said be­fore the game.

“I just look at qual­ity chances. (Matthews’) most scor­ing chances of the year were last game (in a 6-3 win over Van­cou­ver in which the rookie had five shots on goal).”

If the Toronto coach was help­fully shel­ter­ing his teenage star, his L.A. coun­ter­part didn’t need to do the same. Of­fence isn’t L.A.’s game. They outscore you only af­ter they suf­fo­cate you.

Prior to Tues­day the Kings had al­lowed their op­po­nents fewer than 30 shots on goal in 10 straight games. In the first pe­riod the Maple Leafs, who came into the game av­er­ag­ing a league-high 34.5 shots on goal a game, man­aged a grand to­tal of five.

It was easy to see why. While they skated well in the early go­ing, the Leafs, out­shot 43-19 all told, ul­ti­mately spent too much time in their own zone. And when they did ven­ture over the op­pos­ing blue line, they were of­ten turned back quickly.

L.A., mean­while, had no prob­lem com­mand­ing pos­ses­sion in the Toronto end. That al­lowed Dustin Brown to score on a first-pe­riod wris­ter through much net­front traf­fic. And just when Matthews and his line were un­der the im­pres­sion they were mak­ing a clean es­cape from their end on a shift early in the sec­ond pe­riod, the puck abruptly changed di­rec­tions. Ko­pi­tar cra­dled it and fed Tan­ner Pear­son for a bul­let slap­per that beat Fred­erik Andersen to make it 2-0.

Andersen didn’t look good on the Tyler Tof­foli goal that made it 3-0; it beat him low on the glove side and should have been caught. And af­ter Jeff Carter’s in-alone wris­ter pushed the count to 4-0, Bab­cock yanked Andersen for Jhonas En­roth, who promptly let one in off his back­side on a shot from be­hind the net, also by Carter.

“They got bet­ter and we got worse. We didn’t have any push­back. As op­ti­mistic as ev­ery­thing ap­pears one day, you win three in a row, you get your lunch fed to you . . .” Bab­cock said. “It was a hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence for our play­ers and my­self here in our build­ing.”

It got ugly, in other words, and with­out re­deem­ing qual­i­ties save for the teach­ing mo­ments. The Kings might be ex­am­ple­set­ting pro­to­types for a young Toronto team on the rise.

On Tues­day they showed they weren’t quite yet peers.

“We’re a group that wants to get to that level. They showed us that we have a long way to go.” MOR­GAN RIELLY LEAFS DE­FENCE­MAN

FRANK GUNN/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Kings blue­liner Drew Doughty, left, with Tyler Tof­foli, is the "best de­fence­man in the league" in the eyes of Toronto coun­ter­part Mor­gan Rielly.

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