Published On: Wed, Mar 20th, 2019

Maple Leafs’ effort vs. Predators something to build on despite loss

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The goals against have been flowing like water through a burst dam and yet in one night the Toronto Maple Leafs rediscovered how to patch the sizeable leak.

Needing some kind of answer following the ugliest four-game stretch of their season, the ill and injured Maple Leafs showed that they’re capable of playing an air-tight, playoff-friendly style of game.

Forget for a moment that they lost 3-0 to the Nashville Predators here on Tuesday. That’s very much secondary to getting their game into some kind of shape to match up with the Boston Bruins three weeks from now, and this was a forceful step in the right direction.

"I think we can be a lot more proud of the effort we had on defence and the opportunities we gave up," said Auston Matthews. "We definitely narrowed that down."

It was the second stingiest of 73 games this season — with just 20 shots and 13 scoring chances against (according to naturalstattrick.com). That’s bested only by a 19-shot, eight-chance game against Dallas all the way back on Nov. 1.

That it came mere days after they were smoked 6-2 by the lowly Ottawa Senators, played a run-and-gun 7-6 game with Philadelphia, fell behind Chicago 5-0 and were hammered 6-2 by Tampa bears repeating.

They also did it with an ailing defence corps that saw Martin Marincin join Travis Dermott (shoulder) and Jake Gardiner (back) on the sidelines because of illness.

Mike Babcock juggled his makeshift blue line all night long at Bridgestone Arena, frequently pairing Justin Holl with Morgan Rielly and Igor Ozhiganov with Ron Hainsey while also playing Rielly and Hainsey together for nearly eight minutes.

They were his safety blankets, and it worked. Toronto held Nashville to just three shots during a 25-minute stretch that began with the second period. John Tavares had a chance he’d convert nine out of 10 times early in the third that would have tied the score 1-1, only to see Pekka Rinne get his blocker on it.

"That save on Johnny was absurd," said Matthews.

"I really liked our team tonight," said Babcock. "It would be a game you’d like to win because you thought the team put in the effort and did things right and stayed patient. To me, it’s just the process. If you do good things, good things happen.

"This was a real good step for us, especially after the week we just had."

While it might seem a little late in the season for moral victories, the Leafs actually have the luxury of focusing on how they play in games rather than how many points they got out of them.

There’s no mystery left: They’re going to open the playoffs in Boston on either April 10 or 11, and have a smidge more than three weeks left to get prepared.

"When that starts there’s really no kind of warmup time," said Rielly. "You’ve got to be ready to go right from the first game. We’ve got use these [nine] games as preparation and make sure we’re in the right mindset and we’re playing good and we can get rolling."

It helps explain why no one was hanging their heads after seeing so many improvements in Nashville. Minutes after the final buzzer, Babcock and general manager Kyle Dubas chatted calmly over a post-game meal. None of the players appeared visibly angry or frustrated while packing up their gear for the flight to Buffalo.

During 60 tight minutes of hockey, about the only odd-man rush they gave up came on a short-handed chance that Ryan Johansen somehow clanked off the post.

Brian Boyle’s opening goal was the result of a Jake Muzzin turnover, one where the Maple Leafs defenceman had time to clear his defensive zone but waited a little too long before getting stripped by Johansen. Wayne Simmonds made it 2-0 in the third period after a couple broken plays while Filip Forsberg hit the empty net.

It was an otherwise quiet night for embattled No. 1 Frederik Andersen, a welcome respite in a year where he’s faced more rubber than all but one of his peers.

"I think we realized that we don’t have to rush out of position too much," said Andersen. "Trust each other and try and defend from the inside and out. I think that’s something we were doing really well for the most part of the game. That’s definitely an improvement and the type of hockey we’ve got to be comfortable playing."

It looked nothing like the ghastly run of four games last week that saw them surrender 23 goals against.

Sure, the Maple Leafs would have felt better had they capitalized on three power-play opportunities or one of several dominant shifts from Matthews or otherwise found a way to knock down the wall Rinne built in the Predators crease. But producing goals isn’t a big picture issue for a roster with a 40-goal scorer, 30-goal scorer and soon-to-be four 20-goal scorers.

They need to work on preventing them and finally they played in a manner that looked like they were truly committed to taking on the challenge.

"I think we did a great job of it," said Tavares. "I think we were getting above the puck, we didn’t really allow them to sustain too much momentum, did a good job I think of eliminating their ‘D’ from the rush and really joining the play.

"I think it was a good test for us obviously with the way we’ve been loose defensively the last number of games."

Given where they were a few nights earlier, this looked a lot better. You have start somewhere.

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Sportsnet.ca

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Maple Leafs’ effort vs. Predators something to build on despite loss