Sloppy hockey catches up to the Maple Leafs in loss to Chicago

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So, the Maple Leafs lose 4-1 against an inferior Chicago Blackhawks team while managing to keep Connor Bedard off the scoreboard.

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Didn’t see that one coming, did you?

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On Monday night at Scotiabank Arena, there was no Auston Matthews hat trick to cover up the warts.

Let’s be honest — that’s what happened in the first two Leafs games of 2023-23, both victories, and both spearheaded by three goals from the Leafs superstar. The Leafs weren’t great in either game, but Matthews turned on his goal machine, so the Toronto efforts were a little more palatable.

No such deal against Chicago. Don’t be fooled by a 34-save performance by Blackhawks goaltender Arvid Soderblom, nor by Matthews’ eight shots on goal. 

The Leafs didn’t play with much urgency, especially around the Blackhawks net. If you had never heard of Soderblom, perhaps it was because he carried a career record of 2-13-2 into the game. A Vezina Trophy winner, he’s not.

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This is the Blackhawks we’re talking about. They have Connor Bedard, some crafty veterans and not a heck of a lot of much else. 

On paper, there was no reason for the Leafs to not win. As we’ve seen, when the opponent resides in the lower rungs of the National Hockey League, the Leafs at times can’t get it done. Monday was another one of those times. 

“We expect a lot of ourselves and want to play at a certain level and a certain standard,” captain John Tavares said. “We can say it’s a long season, but we want to get our game going as soon as possible. Each game matters the same. The points are important. Today’s result, and we look at the game as a whole, we have to get more connected from start to finish.”

The Leafs don’t play at home again until Oct. 31, when they return from a five-game trip to face the Los Angeles Kings. 

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Some observations from Monday night and from the Leafs’ first three games as a whole.

No defending this

The Leafs haven’t been hitting on all cylinders offensively, and you can draw that back to their defensive troubles. 

Their play has been disjointed and lacking in structure, and you can blame it on the influx of new players if you want. But that’s what the pre-season is for, to smooth out the bumps. Eight exhibition games should come close to accomplishing as much, and yes, we know the veterans didn’t play in every game. Still.

If you could make argument that Ryan Reaves has had the biggest impact of the newcomers, that’s not great, and that’s no slight to the fourth-line winger.

Max Domi hasn’t got untracked, and Tyler Bertuzzi has taken five minor penalties, including two against the Blackhawks. Neither Domi nor Bertuzzi has made a dent on offence. 

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The defence pairing of John Klingberg and Jake McCabe hasn’t clicked, and coach Sheldon Keefe broke them up in the third period, putting Klingberg with Mark Giordano, and McCabe with Timothy Liljegren. We’ll see if those new pairs remain together when the club gathers for practice on Wednesday following an off-day on Tuesday. There’s a chance, too, that we could see defenceman Simon Benoit, the only extra player being carried right now, inserted into the lineup.

Overall, there is too much disorganized play in the defensive zone. The Leafs have allowed 13 goals in three games. There are, as they say, areas to clean up.

A small list

Outside of the flash on the part of William Nylander and some good saves by goalie Joseph Woll, there weren’t many positives for the Leafs on Monday. 

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After recording 99 points last season, Mitch Marner has three assists in three games and didn’t factor on the scoresheet against the Blackhawks.

If the stars can’t come through, there needs to be offensive support from lower in the lineup. In that regard, Matthew Knies has not taken the next step, recording no points while managing to register just four shots on goal. Fraser Minten should be applauded for making the Leafs at the age of 19, but there are zeroes in the scoring columns beside his name. Twice on one shift in the second period on Monday, Minten fanned on a shot, and might have scored his first NHL goal had he not. These types of things usually keep hockey players up at night. 

Bertuzzi has one goal. Domi has one assist. More was expected from both, even this early.

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What’s next

Can we expect the Leafs to clean up their act? The team has demonstrated in the past that it can clamp down defensively. 

Toronto had 111 points when the 2022-23 season ended, and that total was not accomplished through luck and some good timing. 

Even when there have been demoralizing efforts against bad teams, as much as those shouldn’t happen, the Leafs have rebounded. 

There will be off-nights in an 82-game schedule. 

What could gnaw at the Leafs before their trip starts on Thursday in Florida against the Panthers is that similar play on the road won’t cut it. Stops in Sunrise, Tampa, Washington, Dallas and Nashville all will present different challenges.

Continuing to play sloppy hockey won’t cut it.

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“We just continue to focus on the things we’ve been focusing on,” Keefe said. “The next game we play is not going to be like this one. We had the puck probably 75% of the game, that’s not going to happen when we go out on the road. The game is going to be different. 

“If we focus too much on some of the things that happened here tonight, we won’t be ready for the next opponent. It’s going to a tough road trip for us, quality opponents.”

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Originally posted 2023-10-17 03:44:25.