Toronto fell 3-2 to the Washington Capitals
on Friday, but
the Maple Leafs gave a much better account of themselves than they have
in recent games, writes Mike Brophy.
It was a loss. Another loss. The fourth in a row, in fact.
But there were differences this time. The type of differences that may take just a little heat off the Toronto Maple Leafs and their beleaguered coach.
For starters the Maple Leafs competed. That was not the case in their previous three defeats during which they were sluggish while being embarrassed by three teams (New York Rangers, New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes) that were below them in the standings.
Yes, the host Washington Capitals defeated Toronto 3-2 on Friday in what turned out to be a rather entertaining encounter, but the Maple Leafs gave a much better account of themselves than they have in recent games. Lots of end-to-end action and even a little unadulterated passion. Truth be told, the Maple Leafs have won games this season while playing much worse than they did in Washington.
There were other positives for the slumping Maple Leafs.
They got a solid night's work from goaltender Jonathan Bernier. He, along with his partner James Reimer, had both been fighting the puck in recent weeks. The Maple Leafs have been subtly angling at trying to get Bernier to be the team's No. 1 goalie and a performance like Friday night's is almost certain to guarantee him a start at home Sunday against the visiting New Jersey Devils.
Also, Toronto out-shot Washington in the first two periods. Might not seem like a big deal to many, but for a team that gives up the most shots on goal per game in the league and is just about always severely out-shot, keeping it close (36-24 for the Caps) was something of a moral victory.
"We felt we competed to give ourselves a chance," said Toronto coach Randy Carlyle. "Our execution level was up where we gave ourselves a chance. We played a competitive and complete hockey game, but we didn't get rewarded."
Carlyle said the turnaround for his team actually began the night before in Carolina in a game his team lost 6-1.
"We think that we started last night in the second period," he said. "That's what we tried to build on. The last five periods of hockey we played better. This might be one of the better games we played in a month. We showed desperation and we showed when we put effort and our heart into it there is more in that room that what has been displayed."
Clarkson's woes continue
Veteran right-winger David Clarkson is still looking to make a positive impact in Toronto. The high-priced free agent has struggled in his first year playing for his hometown team. In a game where he should have made a positive impact, he took a tripping penalty at 9:44 of the third period. The Capitals did not score on the power play, but were in control of the puck in the Toronto zone when his penalty concluded and that enabled fellow Toronto native Joel Ward to score the game-winning goal for Washington.
Bank shot misses, bank shot goes in
Washington's Nicklas Backstrom attempted a pass in his own zone, but hit teammate John Erskine's skate and it nearly bounced past goalie Michal Neuvirth. On the same shift, but at the other end of the ice, Backstrom shot toward the front of the Toronto net and had the puck bounce off Maple Leafs defenceman Tim Gleason's skate. This time it went in past Bernier.
With goals in just two of his previous 11 games, Toronto's top scorer Phil Kessel needed to step up to the plate. He did exactly that early in the third period when he snapped a high shot home from in tight for his 21st of the season to give the Maple Leafs a 2-1 lead.
Maple Leafs left-winger Carter Ashton broke his nose twice this year in fight, but decided to give it another go dropping the gloves with Washington's Thomas Wilson in the second period. Wilson won the fight, but Ashton's beak was not broken. On the next shift heavyweights Colton Orr of Toronto and Washington's John Erskine fought with the Capitals player again winning the bout.
Defenceman Jake Gardiner returned to the ice while defenceman Mark Fraser joined fellow defender Paul Ranger and left-winger Mark Fraser in the press box.
Grabo checks in
Former Maple Leafs centre Mikhail Grabovski was bought out by the Blue and White and landed in Washington where he signed a one-year deal and scored three goals and an assist in his debut with his new team. With his assist on Alexander Ovechkin's 32nd goal of the season in the second period, Grabovski now has 12 goals and 32 points in 42 games. With many of the league's top players signing contract extensions, he may be one of the more attractive unrestricted free agents available next summer.
Mike BrophyMike Brophy brings a wealth of hockey writing and broadcasting experience to CBC Sports, having covered junior hockey for 14 years before joining The Hockey News as its senior writer for 17 years starting in 1992. Most recently, the Burlington, Ont., native worked as a writer/commentator at Rogers Sportsnet and as co-host of The Power Play on SiriusXM. Mike has written four books, including My First Goal, featuring 50 players describing their first NHL goals.