There must be something in the air that brings out the best in Florida goalies; the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs were stumped again in a 3-1 loss at the BB+T Center Friday night. While not peppered with shots, Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo stopped the tough ones that were enough to secure the victory for the home side. The Leafs ended the series 1-3 against Florida/Tampa this year and Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy provided his own level of frustrations for the Maple Leafs.
It wasn’t that the Leafs played a bad game, but they didn’t carry the intensity from the grinding win in Tampa the previous night and that’s not going to cut it with 35-games remaining in the regular season.
After a Ron Hainsey shot from the point found daylight giving the Leafs the early lead, they continued to mount sustained pressure and it looked like they’d run away with this one.
A terrible giveaway from Jake Gardiner leads to a Mike Hoffman tip that handcuffed returning goaltender Garret Sparks to even the game at one apiece. Moments later Mike Matheson had the winner on a shot from the point that should have been stopped.
Sparks back in the lineup after a concussion sidelined him the last couple weeks played a decent game but most of the shots were routine and his penchant for allowing weak goals continued. The Leafs didn’t give him a lot of scoring support against a team well below them in the standings and that is a cause for concern.
Teams have found a way to neutralize the Toronto forwards that simply appears to be they aren’t going to chase them around the ice. The preference is to crowd the zones and keep the play to the perimeter thus eliminating any “in tight” puck movement and shots are either blocked or steered away from the goal.
By the eight-minute mark of the second period, the Leafs had only 5-shots on goal and zero attempts at the net; against Florida that’s inexcusable. The Panthers shut the Leafs down and, in fairness, they had lady luck on their side as the Leafs swarmed the Florida zone but couldn’t produce any real scoring threats. The chances they did produce, Luongo was there to shut the door.
The Toronto forwards have to find a way to separate them from the blanket coverage they are receiving on a nightly basis. Auston Matthews lack of production is obviously noticeable; William Nylander can’t get on track and while they scored Thursday in the win against Tampa, Patrick Marleau (who was robbed twice on the same shift by Luongo) and Nazem Kadri have to start finding the back of the net.
The Leafs better solve the scoring drought pretty quick because the once lofty position in the standings finds they are now only a couple points ahead for the playoffs never mind challenging for top spot in the division.
The good news is they return home for games against Arizona and Washington this week before an eight day break so plenty of time to gather their thoughts, take a deep breath and regroup. The expectations on this team are the highest in many years and the word adversity (a cool excuse word for losing) is suddenly front and center. The “do no wrong” kids the last couple years will start to feel the heat if this season isn’t steered back on track with consistency. No need to panic yet but the desperation the Leafs played with against Tampa is the game they have to bring every night. They definitely have the talent to do that but lets see if they are mentally tough enough.