PHILADELPHIA – They had this coming to them.
The Toronto Maple Leafs started playing with fire during a sparkling 12-3-1 run over the last month while mostly managing not to get burned. That changed Tuesday night at Wells Fargo Center, when the Philadelphia Flyers got a good bounce to tie the game with 14 minutes to play and created a pretty winner inside the final three.
It was the first time all season Toronto had blown a third-period lead. However, it was the 13th time in the last 17 games where they were outshot.
“We’re a good team and even when we’re not playing our best we’ve been able to find ways to win,” Connor Brown said after the 4-2 loss. “We’ve got to nip this in the bud before it becomes a problem.”
The second part of that statement speaks to a growing feeling inside the dressing room that they’ve become too passive. The Leafs played some 1980s-style hockey in the early weeks of the season and have since worked to cut down on the number of high-quality chances against.
That’s lead to more dump-and-chase attacks and less creativity off the rush. It’s also seen them spend more time in the defensive zone, but keep a lot of shots to the outside – sliding down to a middle-of-the-pack possession team in the process.
“The games we’ve been playing have been more of a patient style of game and we’ve got to find a way to create offence in those games and create some more havoc at their net and have some things happen,” said winger James van Riemsdyk. “I think it’s been kind of low-event sort of games and I think we can do some other stuff to be able to be a little bit more dynamic offensively.”
They have been playing much less entertaining hockey, plain and simple, but it’s proven effective at adding points in the standings.
It has come during a stretch where Toronto has often played with Auston Matthews limited or out injured – he missed his sixth game of the season on Tuesday night – and there isn’t a team in the league that wouldn’t be impacted while having its top centre in the press box.
Still, the Leafs have a deep enough group of forwards to generate more than the 22 shots Flyers goaltender Brian Elliott had to face.
He was beaten on a first-period rush by Patrick Marleau – the 38-year-old picked up his 1,000th career point and is on pace for an impressive 28-goal season – and a tip from van Riemsdyk during a second-period power play, the only one Toronto earned in the game.
That had the Leafs ahead 2-1 entering the final 20 minutes and third-period leads have been money in the bank all year thanks to strong goaltending from Frederik Andersen. Toronto was 12-0-0 in those situations before meeting the Orange Crush.
“He’s been outstanding,” defenceman Morgan Rielly said of Andersen. “I think as a team we have to get a bit more comfortable playing with leads because we want to be in that position every night. I think we just have to become more comfortable with it, better at it, more confident.
“Sometimes when you’re up late in the game or tied late in the game you can just become a bit nervous and more hesitant than you are normally and that normally results in chances against.”
Some bad luck opened the door for the Flyers.
After Andersen tried and failed to clear the puck, Travis Konecny tied the game 2-2 with a long shot that ricocheted off two Leafs – Dominic Moore’s stick and Roman Polak’s back – before finding its way in.
Still, Toronto wound up being just three minutes away from guaranteeing itself at least a point and facing an offensive zone faceoff. That was won by Flyers centre Sean Couturier, who broke free of Brown coming through the neutral zone and got a gorgeous between-the-legs pass from Claude Giroux before scoring the winner at 17:05.
“I thought we were set up pretty good, to be honest with you,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “I thought they worked hard and I thought they moved the puck, but I thought we were in a real good situation. In the end, we didn’t execute on things we normally execute on to win.”
There was a hint of regret in the voice of some players while reflecting on a game where they were outshot 39-22 and out-attempted 57-43 at even strength.
“We didn’t get on our toes and go after them,” said Marleau.
Despite being among the NHL’s top-scoring teams, they need to push the play a little more offensively. Too many of the offensive rushes have become one-and-done opportunities.
The Leafs believe they need to establish more of a cycle game to ensure they don’t sit back too much and let opponents grab points from them.
“Puck retrievals is probably the biggest thing,” said Brown. “One-on-one battles – it’s often that first one-on-one battle. If you can win that one you can get rolling around for a bit and spend some time in their zone and make them play defence, more importantly, and get a few chances while you’re at it.
“That’s something I’m sure we’ll focus on. We have been focusing on it, but we’ve got to take it to the next step.”