A third-period lead to a multi-goal deficit in two minutes and 30 seconds. Normally there’s no coming back from that, which proved again to be correct Thursday night in Calgary for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Undone by a sleepy restart out of the intermission and a rare blip on Frederik Andersen’s recent track record, the Maple Leafs surrendered a great chance to improve to 3-0 on their current west coast road trip with a collapse in the final frame, losing 4-2 to the Calgary Flames.
The Maple Leafs will head north to Edmonton to meet the suddenly struggling Oilers on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday to close out the roadie.
Until then, four points:
Bound to bite them
It seemed as though it wasn’t a matter of if, but when. Because if the Morgan Rielly-Tyson Barrie experiment looked a little inauspicious before, it looked inoperative at times in Calgary.
It seemed like a sure bet that the hyper-aggressive style the newly-arranged top pair plays with was going to cost the Leafs when in back-to-back shifts early in the second period it conceded high-danger opportunities off the rush. First Rielly and Barrie whiffed with pinches consecutively at the same point (which in itself is remarkable), forcing Andersen into a glove save with Johnny Gaudreau barrelling in on a partial break. Then on their next shift barely a minute later, both defencemen committed beyond the tops of the circles in the offensive zone, allowing Andrew Mangiapane to skate in on Andersen with a breakaway from the red line.
Having survived both those defensive lapses though, the openings that seem to be created when Rielly and Barrie are out there together weren’t finally taken advantage of until the start of the third. Calgary scored on the first two shifts for Rielly and Barrie to start the final frame, including an equalizer 19 seconds in, and another on an odd-man rush when Barrie was too quick to push forward and was burned by an errant pass from Jason Spezza.
These were just the second and third goals conceded at 5-on-5 from the Rielly-Barrie combination, which to this point since its installation has avoided mistakes that ultimately cost them.
Unfortunately, all the underlying data suggests there’s more correction in store for Toronto’s top pair.
Because Leafs defenders are encouraged to push up and help prolong offensive possessions, we are going to get used to seeing scramble situations. And perhaps come to better appreciate how a defender might deal with them.
Travis Dermott demonstrated how well his skillset is suited to diffuse the pressure moments that defencemen might encounter in a pinch-happy system early on in the game.
You're allowed to aggressively take chances when you can skate like Travis Dermott. pic.twitter.com/ryH8M7H6Bh— Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_) December 13, 2019
His ability to skate back into position and apply enough strength to break up the attack was a thing of beauty.
All the way back?
As the Maple Leafs stumbled to a less-than mediocre start to the season, we spent a lot of time talking about what was missing from this team. You can flip the systems and structures, redefine the priorities, and send all lines and pairings through the blender, but what’s been most different of late has been a return to form for the engine from last season: the John Tavares and Mitch Marner partnership.
Both encountering significant life changes at the outset of the campaign, injuries at different checkpoints once the action did begin, and of course a change in direction with the insertion of Sheldon Keefe, it seems that Tavares and Marner have finally settled into the season.
With a brilliant set-up and an expert finish apiece, Tavares and Marner provided the only meaningful offence the Leafs would muster, and continue to break out on the team’s current west-coast swing with 11 combined points now in their last three games.
It should be noted that there was one aspect missing if we’re comparing the combo to last year. Because it would be a rare occurrence for Tavares and Marner to pull the puck out of their own net three times at five-on-five like they did in Calgary.
Who starts Saturday?
With Frederik Andersen on pace to play what could be considered an unhealthy amount of games, will Sheldon Keefe risk starting Michael Hutchinson on Saturday?
Between the three Western Canadian teams, the Oilers honestly might be the best spot to roll out a struggling backup. Yes, they have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but those two can wreak havoc on just about any goaltender. And the concerns beyond the two Hart Trophy candidates are few and far between.
Of course, you would feel a lot better about starting Hutchinson had the Leafs already secured all six points on their current trip. But maybe there’s some logic to starting him now, after the circumstances changed after a terrible start to the third period in Calgary, because the Leafs should have a bitter taste in their mouths.
Then again, would you risk breaking the momentum had Andersen sewed up another two points?
All this to say, the Leafs need a capable backup.
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