The struggles of the Toronto Maple Leafs continued on Monday, as Carl Soderberg scored the game-winner midway through the third period in a 6-3 Colorado Avalanche at Scotiabank Arena. Soderberg scored a hat trick and the the unit of Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon erased an early Toronto lead.
Igor Ozhiganov, Kasperi Kapanen and Mitch Marner scored for Toronto and Frederik Andersen made 32 saves in his first start since December 22, but the Leafs were thoroughly outplayed and struggled defensively in their fifth loss in the last six home games.
“I thought (Colorado) worked harder than we did.” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said after the game. “We haven't competed at a high enough level. If you just (looked) who won the races and who won all the battles, they did.”
In spite of being outplayed by an Avs squad who came into the game 1-7-2 in their last 10 games, the Leafs took a 2-0 lead early in the second on a long wrister by Ozhiganov and Kapanen’s 15th of the season, which came quickly on the heels of a Par Lindholm goal that was overturned by a review for offsides.
Landeskog got Colorado on the board with a deflection of a Tyson Barrie point shot and then took advantage on some careless Toronto defensive play, tying the game just over three minutes later when Rantanen stole the puck from Nazem Kadri, taking the lead late in the middle frame on Soderberg’s short-handed marner after Mitch Marner’s gave away the puck just inside the blueline and overpowered Jake Gardiner to beat Andersen, and taking the lead again in the third after Travis Dermott and Nikita Zaitsev lost the puck battle behind the net and William Nylander was slow in getting to Soderberg.
Babcock sat Gardiner for the last 5:31 of the second period and the Leafs blueliner was booed from the Scotiabank Arena crowd in the third period after being demoted to the bottom pairing with Ozhiganov.
“What I would say is that (Jake is) a really, really good player, a really important piece. He didn't play good.” Babcock said. “The good thing about our fans is they're passionate, they want us to win, they want us to play way harder than that. We want to play harder than that for them. I think we've done a good job over time here to be a real good team to watch. We weren't good enough to watch. They paid their money, they're allowed to say what they want. The bottom line is he's an important player for us, we need him to be good.”
Gardiner’s miscues have increased recently (a flubbed pass in New Jersey last Thursday that resulted in a Brian Boyle goal and failing to advance the puck contributed to Sean Kuraly’s tying goal against Boston on Saturday) and the scar tissue of his -5 performance in Game 7 last April will forever taint his tenure with the Leafs. His shortcomings however are not the result of not caring, but more a product of how he is being utilized in his role on an underwhelming Toronto blueline.
Jake’s a great player, he’s been a great player for this team for eight years now, maybe more. He comes to work every day like a pro, works hard. His teammates love him, he’s the most popular guy in this room, he works hard. Guys make mistakes out there all night. That’s the way the game is, it’s played on ice so things happen that can be unpredictable. Just happens that ends up in the back of the net, if not it’s probably a nothing play. He’s a pro, he’ll come to work tomorrow ready to go and we’ll move on. Like I said, we’ve got a road trip to worry about.
Leafs management (both former GM Lou Lamoriello and current GM Kyle Dubas) have failed to address to club’s need to upgrade their blueline, striking out on deals for Travis Hamonic and Ryan McDonagh, signing veteran Ron Hainsey as a stop gap and extending Zaitsev after a 34-point rookie season and asking him to play a more defensive/shot blocking role that he not suited to.
The current state of Toronto’s defense forces Babcock to use Gardiner more than any other defenseman in five-on-five situations.
The 28-year-old is offensive minded and there is a place for that type of defenseman in the NHL (if that weren't the case, Mike Green would not still have a job in the NHL), but it's not a coincidence that Gardiner's best season two years ago was when Babcock managed his minutes more carefully and avoided matching him up against the other team's top line.
After passing up an opportunity to deal him with a year left on his contract last summer, Gardiner will likely finish off his Leaf career as an own-rental and strike it rich on a new contract with teams looking for a puck rusher and power play quarterback in free agency next summer, but unless Dubas is able to address the Leafs defensive needs before February 25, the vulnerability that comes with playing him in a primary role will continue to be a sore spot that could hurt at the most inopportune time.
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