The Toronto Maple Leafs 5-4 loss at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday should not come as a surprise to observers of the club this season, it is just the most recent and graphic example how one of the most talented offensive clubs can at the same time be unable to play sound defensively and be properly motivated to prevent falling behind early in games.
The Leafs have proven many times that they can make up for their shortcomings with late charge (as they nearly did yesterday with four goals from Andreas Johnsson late in the second period and third-period tallies from Auston Matthews, Morgan Rielly and John Tavares), but where is that desperation early in games at both ends of the ice to either establish a lead or prevent their opponent for gaining the early advantage.
“We turned the puck over a little bit, we didn't play hard enough, we weren't quick enough in our zone, we didn't skate good enough or compete at a high enough level.” Head coach Mike Babcock said after the game. “The bottom line is we came back from the road, we thought we were playing real well and we haven't got back to that level. We've got to get back to that level.”
Had Toronto been successful in tying the game, many would have simply marveled at how brilliant their comeback was, but that would have covered up how they allowed Chicago to run rampant, chase goalie Frederik Andersen after allowing four goals for the second straight game, and build a 5-0 lead.
The fourth line of Nic Petan, Frederik Gauthier and Tyler Ennis was on the ice for three of the five Hawks goals (including Alex DeBrincat’s game-winner) in just over six minutes of ice time, but the blame for the defeat cannot be laid at their feet. 14 of the 18 Leafs skaters were minuses after 20 minutes, including veteran Ron Hainsey, who was on the ice for three of Chicago’s four goals.
“I think we just weren’t ready to play again. We came out flat-footed.” Matthews said. (Chicago) dominated that first period but I don’t think we ever really counted ourselves out. Good composure coming out of the locker room, guys came in pretty pissed off and motivated to go back out there. We just came short tonight. That first period was obviously unacceptable.”
The Leafs slow starts are a troubling sign as the playoffs approach because they have shown no hint of eliminating this trend. Teams tend to tighten up defensively in the post-season and if Toronto continues to allow their opponents to establish early control in games, they risk the possibility of never gaining it back.
The Philadelphia Flyers will visit Scotiabank Arena on Friday for the final game of the Leafs three-game homestand, after which they will depart for Ottawa for the second of back-to-back games against the Senators.
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