The shootout hasn’t been kind to the Toronto Maple Leafs this season. Saturday night against the Ottawa Senators was no exception.Knotted 2-2 after 65 minutes, rookie Mitch Marner was tapped as the team’s second shooter. His slick move beat Mike Condon, but the goaltender was irate over a perceived cutback by Marner before he made the shot.
“Honestly there wasn’t much out there. They’re a pretty structured team, it’s tough to get room,” Kadri said of Toronto’s start. “So a lot of shifts are 50-50 and not much happens but that’s when you have to be patient and try to get a couple of goals. But unfortunately it wasn’t good enough [tonight].”
For a team bursting at the seams with skill, Toronto’s shootout struggles have been baffling. They are 4-for-22 in shootout attempts, with three of the scores coming from Marner. They’ve had the second-most games in the league go to the skills competition and no team has lost more shootouts than the Leafs this season.
“Maybe other goalies are good, maybe we’re not that good at it,” Mike Babcock theorized about shootout difficulties. “We work on it at every single pre-game skate. We’ll just keep working on it like we do.”
The defeat prevented Toronto from jumping ahead of Ottawa for second place in the Atlantic Division, but it does put them in the Eastern Conference’s second wild card spot.
“It’s a tough way to go down,” said Kadri. “But you can’t get too high when you win a shootout and you can’t get too low. I think we played pretty steady throughout the game. Obviously getting in the shootout is like going to the judges – it’s a tough way to lose. But nothing you can do about it.”
Saturday was nearly a historic night for Kadri, when he appeared to score his 100th career goal in the third period, but his shot ended up being tipped in front by Matt Martin. Kadri had been emphatic before the game that despite a poor effort in Thursday’s loss to the New York Rangers, Toronto had been playing good hockey – and good teams don’t lose twice in row.
Even without two points, Babcock wasn’t nearly as disappointed as he was two nights before.
“I thought guys were good. There was not much room out there for either team so it was more of a grind and a work game,” he said. “I thought early in the game they were more competitive than us and as the game went on we did a nice job. I got no problem with today’s game, just would have liked to get the extra point.”
Back to the blue line: With Morgan Rielly still missing in action with a lower-body injury, Martin Marincin’s return to the lineup from his own injury came at the perfect time. A dependable penalty killer who slotted into Rielly’s spot alongside Nikita Zaitsev, Marincin played 21:14 after missing 17 games. The rust showed in Marincin’s decision making, no more so than in the final minutes of the game. With the Maple Leafs leading 2-1, Marincin looked panicked as he sent the puck over the boards for a delay of game penalty. Mike Hoffman scored for Ottawa on the ensuing power play to force overtime. Marincin tallied 3:48 on the penalty kill, but was confused on certain assignments. All in all, Babcock said he was “steady” but the loss of Rielly from that group looms large.
Points piling up: Of the six points earned by Toronto on Saturday, not one went to a rookie. James van Riemsdyk extended his 10-game point streak, while Kadri’s two point night gives him 10 points in 10 games and Tyler Bozak’s goal put him at 10 points in eight games. So much of the Maple Leafs’ offence this season has gone through the first-year players, and getting more balanced production from the veterans will be a key for Toronto in the second half as the rookies navigate one of the longest, if not the longest, seasons of their careers.
Fourth line fire: When Martin tipped Kadri’s past Condon, it was his second goal in three games – he hadn’t scored a goal prior to Tuesday’s game against Buffalo since Nov. 26. The overall play of the fourth line has been a pleasant surprise since the Maple Leafs returned from the bye week. Since rookie Frederik Gauthier stepped in for Ben Smith, the trio with Nikita Soshnikov has been trying to develop some chemistry and work towards playing steady, meaningful minutes. Gauthier’s faceoff abilities have made him Babcock’s go-to for defensive draws. Gauthier was Toronto’s best player in the dot against Ottawa at 58 per cent. He also made a nifty play on the penalty kill to spring a two-on-one with Zach Hyman that nearly beat Condon. Seeing the confidence grow for that group bodes well for the continued balanced attack of the offence.
Special powers: Something the Maple Leafs have done consistently well of late is capitalize on their great special teams. Toronto’s power play is second in the league at 24.1 per cent, and has been especially lethal over their last six games going into Saturday, when it generated 10 goals. Bozak’s second period strike came on that unit and tied the game. But when Zach Hyman drew his second penalty of the night, it resulted in a four-minute man advantage that Toronto came away from empty-handed. The result looked to take some momentum out of the players and was an opportunity they should have been able to use to help secure a win.
Next game: The Maple Leafs have one final game on this home stand – they face the Calgary Flames for the second of two meetings this season on Monday.
Kristen Shilton, TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter | Photo: Huffington Post