In awe of Kings’ men
Young Leafs little more than admirers in boys-to-men game
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
Kings blueliner Drew Doughty, left, with Tyler Toffoli, is the "best defenceman in the league" in the eyes of Toronto counterpart Morgan Rielly.