Since their red-hot play in November, the Toronto Maple Leafs have fallen back into an all-too-familiar pattern of playing a fast-and-loose offensively that is mildly successful during the regular season, and with a lack of attention to detail defensively that leads to failure in the playoffs. Once again on their six-game road swing, Toronto jumped out to an early lead and squandered it away in a 6-3 loss to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.
Ilya Mikheyev, Mitch Marner, and Michael Bunting scored three first period goals for Toronto, but the Rangers took advantage of a thin Leafs defensive corps playing without veterans Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl, tying the game in the middle frame and scored three times in the third to hand the Leafs their second regulation loss in the last three games.
New York took advantage of an inexperienced second pairing of Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin and a weak bottom pairing of Travis Dermott and call up Alex Biega (who were on the ice for all five Rangers even-strength goals), some bad defensive habits from a number of forwards and an average performance from goalie Jack Campbell.
“I just thought we played soft and we made poor decisions defensively and we couldn’t sort anything out. I just thought it was far different. Each game has been different so it’s hard to talk about patterns other than the obvious in that we’ve been giving up leads but I just thought we got exposed today for being a team that was soft and purposeless.” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said after the game. “I didn’t think we had anybody that played well tonight, coaches didn’t coach well tonight, so today is a much different game than we’ve played in the others where we’ve given up leads and such. I just didn’t think we had nearly enough urgency or purpose.”
Defensive depth and consistency have long been concerns for Toronto, who appear to be capable of playing a two-way game conducive to postseason success at times, but fall back on old habits on a recurring basis.
The absence of Muzzin(who will be out at least the rest of this week with concussion symptoms) and Holl (still in COVID protocol/quarantine in Arizona) forced Keefe to play the top pairing of Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie over 25 minutes, but Rangers coach Gerard Gallant simply waited until they were off the ice to match up his top two lines against the Leafs second and third pairings.
While it is expected that Muzzin and Holl’s unavailability will be short-term, it does illustrate how the Toronto blueline continues to be their Achilles heel. The Leafs need to continue to play Liljegren and Sandin regularly and abandon the rotation with Dermott to find out what they have in their Swedish duo.
Dermott is by now a known commodity and while capable of stepping in, he has proven to not be effective as an everyday defenseman.
The Leafs are remarkably thin on defense. Muzzin has been injured in the last two playoffs, and the club never replaced the experience lost when Zach Bogosian left for Tampa Bay last summer.
GM Kyle Dubas now has to realize that for his club to have a chance to advance in the playoffs, acquiring a top-four defenseman to play alongside Muzzin is a necessity. The market for potential rentals like Rasmus Ristolainen or Josh Manson may be extremely expensive, but it is hard to imagine the Leafs being in the position of besting Tampa or Florida in a first-round matchup with their blueline in its current state.
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