The Maple Leafs couldn’t score their way out of trouble this time.
And that was gnawing at Sheldon Keefe, even though Monday’s sloppy 4-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks at Scotiabank Arena was the team’s first setback of the season.
“The turnover stuff early on … really, really careless — and that’s all our best players,” Keefe said in terse post-game comments. “That didn’t give us a chance to take hold of the game on home ice. We didn’t take charge and you let your opponent hang around. We’ve seen this movie before.”
More than 19,000 were actually hoping for a Star Wars sequel between Auston Matthews of the Leafs, possibly seeking a league-record third straight hat trick, and Connor Bedard, the dazzling first overall pick of Chicago.
Yet neither had a point — or spoke after the game.
Not counting the empty net goal on Monday, the Leafs have allowed 12 goals in three games.
“(The trouble) is a bit on the counter and the transition game that a lot of teams possess,” captain John Tavares observed. “The responsibility and structure we have to have in all three zones, even when you’re controlling play, you have to realize how quick teams can be opportunistic and how quick plays can be made.”
Keefe has mentioned some individuals among the new Leafs have trouble adjusting to their surroundings, such as Max Domi, but three weeks of training camp should have addressed a lot of that team-wide integration The players weren’t reverting to that as an excuse for the neutral zone troubles.
“I think the expectation after camp is that everyone is prepared to play,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly, “whether that’s new guys, young guys or old guys who have been here awhile.
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“I believe everybody here is ready, it’s just a matter of execution. It’s early, there’s a number of things we have to clean up.
“Structure is important to us. As defencemen we want to keep them in front of us.”
As Keefe groused, a case of Monday blahs with a low-ranked opponent and an unheralded goaltender have often conspired against the Leafs at home. Despite his best efforts and eight of Toronto’s 35 shots, Matthews was denied by undrafted Swede Arvid Soderblom, who came in with a career NHL record of 2-13-2 and .891 save percentage.
The Leafs did keep dynamic Bedard off the board — barely — as Joseph Woll stopped him four times with one off the post.
In his first start since the playoffs, Woll held the Leafs in the game with 12 mostly difficult stops until their lack of finish and gap control caught up with them. The hustling Hawks got far too many free looks in the second period in building their lead.
The Leafs didn’t get a full power play until late in the third, and looked awful on it, while spending too much time on the kill.
Ironically, that’s where Matthews came closest when he and Mitch Marner were helping defuse a John Klingberg minor.
A poised Woll snared Bedard’s wrist shot on the first of two penalties assessed to Tyler Bertuzzi, while Bedard had the Hawks’ most exciting rush of the first period. He beat a defender and came in hard showing backhand before a late switch to forehand.
“I just stayed right with him,” said Woll. “In the moment, I’m not focused on who it is coming down, just focused on the puck.
“I felt good in the net, but stopping one of those breakaways in the second (Leafs nemesis Corey Perry and Tyler Johnson were let in free) would’ve been nice for the team and the momentum at that time.
“When we got down, we flipped a switch, but the pucks don’t always go in.”
MacKenzie Entwistle beat Woll short side, which jarred the Leafs into action. Consecutive hard presses paid off when William Nylander dangled and dropped to Tavares for his first of the year. Nylander had a 6-on-5 goal called back on video review for an offside, which also cancelled Chicago’s first empty-net clincher.
Lukas Reichel got just enough of a Nylander pass to Matthews to disrupt the latter’s one good early chance. Marner stumbled into his own penalty 35 seconds into Toronto’s first power play. Johnson’s goal put an end to 16 failed power plays for Chicago this month.
There was another fight on Monday in keeping with the Leafs’ rougher edge this season, Noah Gregor dropping the gloves with Connor Murphy on the faceoff after Gregor was blamed for Nikita Zaitsev going into the glass hard enough to cut him. After two bouts involving enforcer Ryan Reaves, Gregor did well in what had to be the first time in a decade the Leafs have been involved in fisticuffs in their first three games.
After a day off it’s a Wednesday practice and a five-game road trip for the Leafs, starting in Florida.