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The Toronto Maple Leafs, in spite of possessing one of the NHL’s best records, have displayed a disturbing level of complacency at inopportune times this season. It has shown itself on numerous occasions against NHL bottom dwellers which one of the league’s top-echelon clubs is expected to beat, but it has also shown itself in games where they have an advantage and for some reason have a lapse in concentration or in the case of their 4-3 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Monday, a departure from consciousness.
Toronto dominated the first 25 minutes of the game and led 2-0 on goals from Auston Matthews and Cale Jarnkrok, but after that either stopped putting forth enough effort or could not match the Sabres desperation. Buffalo outshot the Leafs 17-3 in the second period, got on the scoreboard late in the middle frame, and tallied three times in the third to take a lead that they would not surrender.
“Our second period was our worst period by far….maybe of the season.” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said after the game. “We got two goals early in the period, which obviously puts us in a good spot. I didn’t think we took care of it very well from there. We just allowed it to snowball. That is one of the top teams in the NHL in terms of time spent in the offensive zone. When you don’t exit your zone cleanly and get through the neutral zone, they get rolling, they get momentum, and now you’re tired and can’t play your game.”
Toronto had chances to steal back the momentum or respond after Buffalo took a lead, as William Nylander missed on a breakaway and John Tavares passed up a great scoring chance by passing on a 2-on-0 break late in the third. Nylander narrowed the lead to one with 1:02 left in regulation, but the Leafs could not get the equalizer past Craig Anderson.
Matt Murray made 25 saves in the loss (his third game since returning from injury) and allowed four goals in his fifth straight, but after the game, Keefe found less fault in his goaltender and more in the defense in front of him.
“I think (Murray) has been great. I know the numbers look terrible, (but) again here tonight, I thought he was really good.” Keefe said. “There were four tap-ins. They are three feet or less in front of the crease. The pass out on the winning goal from below the goal line is about as dangerous of a pass as you can give up in the NHL. You cannot allow that to happen. That is very poor penalty killing by us.”
The loss used up one of the Leafs games in hand over Tampa Bay, who trail by four points with 67 games played, while Toronto has played 66. The Lightning enter a difficult stretch in the next four games, where they play New Jersey three times, while the Leafs take on Colorado on Wednesday and Carolina on Friday before embarking on another five-game road swing.