The Toronto Maple Leafs had to look at their situation entering the New Year with a sense of optimism. The club had earned points in 10 straight games (which had them trailing only Boston in the Atlantic Division) and after playing mostly on the road in December, they appeared well set up to make hay at home with six January games at Scotiabank Arena before their bye week and the All-Star break.
Unfortunately the combination of injuries to Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly, overall struggles in the defensive zone and Frederik Andersen’s below average goaltending combined for a .500 record (2-2-2) at home, including a lopsided 6-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday.
Along with the 8-4 loss thrashing in Florida last weekend, the Leafs bad January has them sitting outside to the top eight in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break, tied with Florida for third place in the Atlantic at 57 points, and trailing Columbus and Philadelphia by one point in the wildcard race.
Toronto left no doubt that it was going to be one of those nights, allowing Chicago to take the lead 21 seconds into the game and falling behind 3-0 after 20 minutes on goals from Drake Caggiula, Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad.
William Nylander and Alex Kerfoot scored in the middle frame to get the Leafs on the board, but every time there was a moment where Toronto seemed to have some momentum to get back into the game, the Hawks responded in kind.
“I didn't have that vibe going into (the game), but clearly from the drop of the puck here we just didn't have a lot of life.” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said after the game. “(The loss is) just a sign of where you are, that you're not when you want to be. Reality checks come. I thought we were an immature team down in Florida, I thought we were an immature team here today. That's how we're approaching these things. (When) we're not performing (and) we're not playing with any level of discipline or consistency, that's what happens.”
It was a particularly bad night for the Zach Hyman-Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner line, who were a combined -11 matching up against the Toews line, as well as another fine display of defensive prowess from Martin Marincin, who was on the ice for four Chicago goals in less than 11 minutes of ice time.
The largest concern going into the break is the play of Andersen, who since posting a 7-3-1 record, 1.97 GAA and .938 save percentage in November, has a 3.41 GAA and .895 save percentage in December and January. This drop can possibly be blamed in part to fatigue and to a team more focused on creating offensive chances and leaving themselves vulnerable to counterattack, but also has to be attributed to the Leafs goaltender giving up goals that he should stop.
With the eight-day break, Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is likely not going to be in panic mode, but will putting feelers out to his counterparts throughout the league to see if there are any possibilities to improve his club in the month preceding the trade deadline.
Indications are that Jake Muzzin will be returning after the break, but Toronto not having Rielly until mid-March at the earliest may necessitate Dubas finding some temporary or long-term help on the blueline.
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