Maple Leafs find ways to waste decent effort on Long Island

UNIONDALE, NY - NOVEMBER 13: New York Islanders Center Mathew Barzal (13) reacts to scoring a goal during the first period of the National Hockey League game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Islanders on November 13, 2019, at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, NY. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Mathew Barzal led the Islanders to a 5-4 win over the Maple Leafs on Wednesday night. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

We’ll share points after every game throughout the Toronto Maple Leafs season.

Even despite losing 11 times now on the season, we haven’t been able to say this many times this season. But tonight, the Toronto Maple Leafs were beaten by a better team.

Yeah, the New York Islanders don’t quite have the top-end talent to match the Leafs. And yeah, they were caved in territorially for long stretches in this one. But by the end, through their sound defensive structure and special teams dominance, the Islanders proved to be the superior side, beating Toronto 5-4 in Uniondale on Wednesday night.

An especially daunting back-to-back looms for the Maple Leafs this weekend with the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins on the schedule.

Until then, three points:

First Point: Two strong, spoiled periods

There is quite a lot to nitpick after another Leafs’ loss, but the team’s starts to the first and second periods shouldn’t be among them. In fact, they dictated terms across long stretches in both frames, only to wind up wasting both those efforts.

In the first, Toronto had racked up a 14-shot attempt advantage, and protected Frederik Andersen brilliantly, before Andreas Johnsson and William Nylander suffered a lapse in communication while moving the puck through neutral ice. Mat Barzal scored on that unforced turnover on a sweet feed from Jordan Eberle, and for the remaining six minutes in the period the Leafs weren’t able to handle the boost that the icebreaking goal seemed to provide the Islanders. Travis Dermott wound up succumbing to that pressure and took a penalty, which Anthony Beauvillier eventually scored on to provide he Islanders with a 2-0 lead.

That added to an NHL-worst total in terms of goals allowed in the first period, and the Leafs headed into the dressing room trailing for the ninth time in 20 games. And yet, the Maple Leafs returned to that same formula, and turned things around.

While holding the Islanders to without a shot beyond the halfway mark in the period, the Leafs pulled to within one on a double-deflection goal from Kasperi Kapanen.

Then after the Islanders finally managed to test Frederik Andersen with their first shot in the frame, Jake Muzzin neatly led the Maple Leafs out on a transition rush that ultimately ended with Nylander tying the game on a pass from Johnsson.

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As hard as the Leafs had to work to break down the Islanders, their own structure seemed to fail them almost effortlessly. The very next shot for the Islanders went in after the Nylander goal when Tyson Barrie bolted toward the blue line before Muzzin had clean possession, leaving Alexander Kerfoot to defend two forwards slow to exit the offensive zone.

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After already erasing a two-goal lead, coming back once more against an Islanders team that had entered the game with a 10-0-1 record when leading after two periods proved to be too much to ask.

Unsurprisingly so.

Second Point: Actually special

Though it’s not rare to see the Maple Leafs’ special teams let them down, it’s not every night that you see exactly what they’re missing from the opposite side.

While the Islanders had the lead at the time, what seemed to put the game away (beyond the rather cheap empty-net goal that wound up being the winner) was back-to-back standout individual performances from the New York special teams.

First it was Casey Cizikas singlehandedly shutting down the Maple Leafs’ top power play unit and nearly scoring a goal with a forechecking clinic after Devon Toews went to the box inside five minutes in the third period.

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Then after Muzzin went to box just moments after the Toews penalty expired, the zone-entry king himself, Mat Barzal, expertly sliced through two Leafs penalty killers to set up Derrick Brassard for the back-breaking goal.

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How have the Islanders claimed 25 of the last 26 points they’ve had at stake? Rigid defensive structure at even strength, and standout performances on each side of the special teams equation.

Those are things the Leafs are certainly without.

Third Point: Can you bottle it?

Hey, I suppose the Maple Leafs do deserve some credit for making things interesting after Cizikas appeared to have put the game away with an empty netter to make it 5-2 with two-and-a-half minutes left. Goals from Justin Holl and John Tavares actually set the Leafs up with a chance to press for the equalizer with 37 seconds left.

If it looked familiar, it was actually the second game in a row that the Leafs have had success while throwing the kitchen sink, as Johnsson scored with the extra attacker in a loss to Chicago last weekend.

On one hand, it’s sorta deflating that three goals scored in extra-attacker scenarios all wound up to be trivial moments of offense, but hey, desperation seems to look good on the Leafs.

You’d just like to see that seep into their normal power play strategy, if at all possible.

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