Leafs Nation can’t blame Jake Gardiner (didn’t dress) for the slumping Maple Leafs 4-2 loss to the Arizona Coyotes at the Scotiabank Arena in a rare Sunday night home game.
The Leafs came out with lots of energy and took the game to the Coyotes but could only manage a Travis Dermott floater from the point that handcuffed Arizona goalie Darcy Kuemper for the early lead.
Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet had a simple game plan for the surging Coyotes who’ve won five of their last seven by not chasing the quicker Leafs, defending with a 1-2-2 zone coverage that cut down the stretch pass breakout and when it did get through the Toronto forward was usually standing still and could only chip the puck into the Arizona end of the ice. They patiently waited for the Leafs vulnerable defense to turn it over and they did numerous times allowing the Coyotes forwards scoring opportunities. The Leafs had 14 giveaways while the Coyotes turned it over only 9-times. After being out-shot by a 3-1 margin in the first 15-minutes, Arizona turned the tide as the Leafs went into the unexplained funk they fall into at home eventually out-shooting the home side 31-26.
The Coyotes didn’t do anything special but follow the game plan most teams are employing when the Leafs do manage to sustain offensive pressure; they pushed the play to the perimeter; crowded the net; had 30-blocked shots (Leafs had 11); forced the frustrated Toronto forwards to shoot from long range. That turns a potent offense into a defend-able one.
The Leafs cannot be faulted for not trying but are clearly lacking the intensity they displayed the first 30 games of the season. Yes pucks are bouncing over sticks, goal posts look 2-feet wide, if the were using wooden sticks sawdust would be coming out of the handle from squeezing to tight; all the signs of a slump. Toronto has to realize the games are 60 minutes, individual play will not be the answer and stop hanging your head; only hard work will break this slide.
The steady Frederik Andersen would like Clayton Kellers short side goal back, but held the Leafs in even though he wasn’t really tested. Kuemper, after a soft first goal, shut the door on the Leafs who are making a habit of bringing out the best in goaltenders throughout the league the last month.
Nikita Zaitsev’s woes on the backend continue as he was the goat on the winner and had a couple brutal giveaways earlier. Martin Marincin, in for the injured Gardiner, played like a guy who hasn’t seen the ice for a few months. The sign of the bottom maybe near when even Morgan Reilly had a poor outing that has rarely occurred this year.
The bottom line is the Leafs have 34 games remaining and while the panic button can be left untouched for now, the intensity gauge on every player must be dialed up a couple notches. Otherwise what started as a very promising year could get away from them very quickly with the playoff races starting to heat up.