Maple Leafs need fewer ex­cuses, more goals against big teams, David Shoalts writes

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - REPORT ON BUSINESS - DAVID SHOALTS

If you don’t out­play the goal­tenders paid to stop the shots, you’re not out­play­ing the teams

The one con­stant with the Toronto Maple Leafs this sea­son is the mantra re­peated by their head coach ev­ery time he stands in front of a group of re­porters.

“We’ve got to find a way to play bet­ter and win games no mat­ter who’s in net,” was the ver­sion Mike Bab­cock gave on Sun­day, 14 or so hours after the Leafs showed once again that while their point to­tal puts them among the NHL’s big boys, they still can’t beat them very of­ten.

The is­sue of who is in net came up be­cause Fred­erik An­der­sen may fi­nally be ready to play on Mon­day when the Leafs meet the Colorado Avalanche. There were hopes he might re­turn from his groin in­jury for Satur­day’s game against the Bos­ton Bru­ins, but a case of the flu put the ki­bosh on that and the Leafs went on to lose 3-2 to the Bru­ins with stop­gap Michael Hutchin­son once again try­ing to hold the fort.

There may be an ar­gu­ment the re­sult might have been dif­fer­ent had An­der­sen, who has not played since Dec. 22, been ready to go. But this game was not lost on goal­tend­ing; it was lost be­cause the long line of big scor­ers the Leafs have these days could not find a way to get bet­ter than the Bru­ins and their big line of Pa­trice Berg­eron, Brad Marc­hand and David Pas­tr­nak plus their sup­port­ing cast.

The game con­cluded the reg­u­lar-sea­son se­ries with the Bru­ins, who will quite likely be the Leafs’ first-round play­off op­po­nent in April for the sec­ond con­sec­u­tive sea­son. Bos­ton took the se­ries 3-1 and the only ques­tion is whether it is the Leafs or the Bru­ins who will have the home-ice ad­van­tage when the At­lantic Divi­sion se­ries starts.

The ex­cuses fol­low­ing the Bru­ins loss were much the same as the ones in the wake of a 4-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Light­ning, the ru­n­away At­lantic lead­ers, on Dec. 13. We out­played them but their goal­tender played great. On Satur­day, that was Tuukka Rask and back on Dec. 13 it was An­drei Vasilevskiy.

“We played re­ally well, did a lot of good things but you make a cou­ple costly mis­takes and it ends up in the back of your net,” Leafs cen­tre Aus­ton Matthews said after Sun­day’s prac­tice. “That’s on us. Their goalie played well, as did ours. You make a cou­ple costly mis­takes, it ends up hurt­ing you in the end and then you’re chas­ing the game in the last pe­riod.”

There was also the usual talk about how many scor­ing chances the Leafs cre­ated – more than the Bru­ins by their reck­on­ing. “I thought lots of guys were good last night. They just didn’t fin­ish when they had the good op­por­tu­nity,” Bab­cock said.

This brings to mind a cou­ple of great points Win­nipeg Jets head coach Paul Mau­rice likes to make. He says, ap­prox­i­mately, that goal­tenders are part of the team, too, and they get paid to stop shots. As for the skaters, they are paid to score, not cre­ate chances.

The Leafs need to bear this in mind the next time they come up short against one of the NHL’s best teams. If you don’t out­play the goal­tender, too, you’re not out­play­ing the team.

They have a chance to fin­ish their mid­sea­son test in de­cent shape if they can beat the Light­ning in Tampa on Thurs­day. The Leafs also get to warm up against a re­spectable op­po­nent in the Avalanche that is strug­gling right now.

The Avalanche come into Toronto on a three-game los­ing streak and a 1-7-2 run in the past 10 games. But, like the Bru­ins, they have one dom­i­nant line in Nathan MacKin­non, Gabriel Lan­deskog and Mikko Ran­ta­nen that can over­whelm op­po­nents.

“They’re good,” Bab­cock said dead­pan when asked what he liked about the Avalanche trio, who have 185 points col­lec­tively so far this sea­son. “No, they’re good play­ers. Ob­vi­ously real good play­ers, real pow­er­ful skaters through the mid­dle. Huge, huge eyes out there, make plays, good tenac­ity in the group and they’re an im­por­tant part of their team.”

What the Leafs need to do is show some “huge eyes” and “good tenac­ity” of their own to turn a few more of those chances into goals. It also does not hurt that An­der­sen, who Bab­cock would not con­firm would be start­ing on Mon­day, will prob­a­bly re­turn from his in­jury.

With­out him, the Leafs went 4-4-0, which in­cluded losses to the Nashville Preda­tors and the Bru­ins. With him, some­times those two-goal nights against the top teams might be enough to squeak out a win.

Bab­cock’s cau­tion aside, An­der­sen said his lat­est mal­ady, the flu, is gone and he ex­pects to play: “I def­i­nitely feel ready to go.”

It also ap­pears backup goal­tender Gar­ret Sparks will be back from a con­cus­sion. He and An­der­sen were the only goal­tenders at prac­tice on Sun­day and Hutchin­son worked out on his own af­ter­wards. Also on Sun­day, the Leafs signed for­ward Trevor Moore to a two-year con­tract ex­ten­sion worth US$750,000 in 2019-20 and US$800,000 in 2020-21.

FRANK GUNN/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Toronto Maple Leafs cen­tre John Tavares man­ages to get a shot on Bos­ton Bru­ins goal­tender Tuukka Rask after be­ing checked to the ice dur­ing in Toronto on Satur­day. The Leafs out­played the Bru­ins, but Rask was on fire and Toronto fell 3-2.

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