No urgency, no secondary scoring among problems in Maple Leafs' loss to Buffalo Sabres

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No one expected the Maple Leafs to go out and beat up a bunch of Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night.

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There was a rallying cry of sorts coming from the Leafs dressing room earlier in the day, a general resolve among the players that, yes, they were going to have each other’s backs after letting Boston Bruins captain Brad Marchand off the hook on Thursday.

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Two nights after the Leafs didn’t respond to Marchand’s ugly trip on Timothy Liljegren, a play that put the defenceman on longterm injured reserve, the Leafs couldn’t find the motivation to play a good hockey game against a Sabres team that was spanked on home ice by Philadelphia on Friday.

If shiny things catch your attention, feel free to enjoy Auston Matthews’ third hat trick in 11 games this season.

Overall against Buffalo, the Leafs didn’t muster a heck of a lot in the way of urgency and intensity. 

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A 6-4 loss was the result, and while anyone can say it’s early, there should be concern. That’s four losses in a row for a Leafs team that usually gets inferior play out of the way before the calendar turns to November. 

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A record of 5-4-2, which the Leafs will lug into a match on Monday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning, is the mark of a mediocre team.

“In terms of where our team game is at, to me, we’ve got a bunch of guys that we need to get playing better,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said.

If a forward is not named Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares or William Nylander, the puck is not going in the net. The Leafs have not had an even-strength goal from another forward since Oct. 21 in Tampa Bay, when Matthew Knies scored twice in a Leafs win. Tyler Bertuzzi is the only other forward who has scored in the past two weeks, and that came on a power play in Dallas.

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Knies has two goals. Max Domi doesn’t have any. Bertuzzi has two, both on the power play. Calle Jarnkrok has one goal. David Kampf, Pontus Holmberg and Ryan Reaves have none.

The lack of secondary scoring is a concern, Keefe acknowledged, as it should be.

“We’ve got guys … Knies is new to the league, he has not found his stride offensively, Kampfer is a guy who is going to give you everything he has, but that’s not his primary thing,” Keefe said. “Domi is a guy we expect more out of, some contribution offensively. Keep going back to that Tampa game, he makes two game-breaking plays that get us the win, allows us to get two points. 

“That’s the kind of contribution you need from him and Knies. It’s a lot of heavy lifting for our top guys right now, for sure.”

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That’s the point to a degree, isn’t it? Keefe can use one game as an example that Knies and Domi have made a difference on the scoresheet and that’s it. 

Bertuzzi, hours after saying in the morning he had no excuses for his play, had one shot on goal against the Sabres. Domi had one. Knies had none. 

The Leafs’ lack of attention to detail in the first game of a five-game home stand should be sounding, at the very least, some alarm bells. The Sabres were only to happy to take advantage of Leafs mistakes. Marner’s turnover onto the tape of Tage Thompson, who had open ice before beating Joseph Woll for a shorthanded goal, was one. Jeff Skinner got in behind defenceman Max Lajoie, playing in his first game of the season for the Leafs, for another. 

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Defensive breakdowns generally hurt the Leafs, and when Alex Tuch scored into an empty net, it marked the first time this season that Toronto allowed six goals in a game. 

With Liljegren and Jake McCabe out, Lajoie was of little help. He played less than five minutes, taking some shine off the next-man-up approach. McCabe, Keefe said, is a possibility to practise on Sunday as he makes his way back from a groin injury. 

One potential return of a player won’t solve the Leafs’ woes.

To a man, especially those who have been coming up small on the scoresheet, the Leafs have to bear down with greater concentration. 

“Too many careless plays, giving them too many free looks around our net,” Marner said in summing up the damage. 

“We need to be a lot better, need to be way more competitive, need to back up home ice a lot more. We need to make sure we’re the ones driving and not being passengers.”

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