KANATA, Ont. – It should’ve been a rout, this match between one of the NHL’s tornado offences and a depleted roster that more closely mirrors that of a great American Hockey League outfit.
The Ottawa Senators had already traded away pretty much anyone worth dealing, then they got smacked with injuries to emerging young studs Colin White and Thomas Chabot.
The Sens have the second-worst goals-allowed average in entire league (3.66), give up shots easier than a St. Patrick’s Day bartender (an NHL-worst 36 per night), and, as the 31st-best team in hockey, have the greatest odds of securing a first-overall pick they’d be forced to sheepishly hand over to Joe Sakic and the Colorado Avalanche.
Beyond pride, the Sens have little to play for. Nothing to tank for.
So, into Kanata stroll the mighty, playoff-bound Maple Leafs, with the second-most-potent offence in hockey. In front of them is the carrot of Round 1 home-ice advantage. Behind them is a convoy of buses, SUVs, Ubers and taxis full of blue-bleeding supporters searching for a cheap road trip and a head start on some Irish revelry.
“Go! Leafs! Go!” chants rocked Canadian Tire Centre through warm-up and interrupted the anthem.
Toronto laid another defensive egg, in an alarming week that’s featured four such leaky efforts in a row.
With a healthy three quarters of the road barn rooting them on, the Maple Leafs lost 6-2 to the Senators, raising the question yet again: With only 10 games left on the docket, are the Maple Leafs prepared to grind out a nasty, tight playoff series with Boston?
“There’s nights where it looks like we’re ready for it, and there’s some nights where it looks like we’re not ready for it at all,” Mitch Marner said. “We talk about it a lot. We know what we gotta do. It’s time to start doing it.
“We’ve got to make sure we dial it in. It’s a different beast in the playoffs.”
It’s the type of animal that devours the inconsistent efforts exhibited by the Leafs this week and spits out the bones.
During Ottawa’s 17-shot first-period barrage, it was defenceman Cody Ceci drawing first blood, hopping into the play and sniping high glove on Leafs netminder Garret Sparks, snapping a personal 32-game goal drought and quieting the blue sea early.
“We did a good job of taking the crowd out of it right from the start,” said Zack Smith, after playing a game for Ottawa in Ottawa.
Brian Gibbons doubled the Senators’ lead in the second frame with a spinning, tumbling, extra-effort backhand in the slot that weaseled through a crowd and scooted past Sparks’ nifty St. Patrick’s Day pads.
Winger Magnus Paajarvi scored twice. Anthony Duclair added some insurance. The outcome was never in doubt, and the pushback from Toronto was mild at best. At worst.
“We need more emotion,” said Sparks, after appearing in a fifth consecutive loss.
“I’m an emotional player. I need more emotion. We need more emotion from everybody. We need people to get angry. We need people to step up and get mad and take it personally.”
It’s a quote that should come attached with its own flame emoji, and coach Mike Babcock did his best to snuff it out.
“Being a professional is getting ready each and every day and doing your part,” Babcock said. “So if you’re Sparky, your job is to stop the puck, and if you’re a D-man, it’s to move the puck and keep it out, so everyone just do your own job and we’ll be fine.”
This is the least fine the Leafs have looked all season.
Morgan “Career Year” Rielly snapped his 20th goal of the season and became just the third Leafs defenceman in history to reach that plateau, joining Ian Turnbull and Al Iafrate.
John Tavares dug in for a power-play marker and hit the 40-goal milestone for the first time in his 10-year career.
But neither could properly celebrate with a minor crisis to snuff out.
“It’s obviously been a hell of a week,” Tavares said. “All we can do is continue to push forward, stick together and work our way out of it. That’s the only way we’re going to get to where we wanna get to.”
The dismal week in Toronto’s own zone has seen the club surrender a minimum of five goals in each of its four games.
Counting on your guys to score six or seven a night? Not exactly a recipe for success.
For the most part, an inexperienced Ottawa roster responded to every Toronto push and did an admirable job of limiting chances off the rush and stifling the Leafs’ pep through the neutral zone — a key focus of interim coach Marc Crawford’s plan.
“If you’re going to play a trade-chances game, that’s not in our best interest,” Crawford said.
“What they do better than anybody in the league, I believe, is they counter on you so well. They’ve got a lot of guys who want to get going north as quick as they can, and they’ve got the ability to make those passes and really play a game that’s high-paced.”
That pace originates from the back end, which has been horribly exposed in the nine games (and counting) played without slick puck-movers Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott.
Toss in this week’s shaky goaltending, and not even a group as skilled as these Leafs can outscore its D-zone debacles. Those Kelly-green St. Pats uniforms looked fantastic, though.
“Less turnovers within our own zone, managing the puck a little bit better going through the neutral zone, breaking out smoother – basically anything regarding getting the puck out of our zone and into theirs and playing offence is an area that we can improve on,” Rielly said.
“If anything we should be amping it up and using these games as preparation for what’s to come.”
It should’ve been a rout.
It was a rout.
The Leafs will take a day off Sunday to lick their wounds, take another flu shot and a long look in the mirror.
They’ll try to steer this rickety thing back on the rails Tuesday in Nashville.
Originally published at https://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/maple-leafs-cap-troublesome-week-another-poor-performance/