The Toronto Maple Leafs had the opportunity to witness first-hand what a legitimate Stanley Cup contender looks like on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, taking a 5-2 loss to the Penguins. Sidney Crosby put on a clinic as he continues to surge since returning to the lineup, racking up four points in the victory, while Tristan Jarry was solid in goal with 34 saves.
Auston Matthews took back the league lead in scoring with his 43rd goal of the season, and Kyle Clifford notched his first goal with the Maple Leafs in the loss.
Now down 11-3 on aggregate, the Leafs will host the Penguins for the first time this season Thursday night in the second half of the home-and-home.
Until then, three points:
House of horrors
What does rock bottom look like for the Maple Leafs?
Is “A helluva lot like PPG Paints Arena” an acceptable answer?
If watching the Leafs get pounded into submission tonight looked a little familiar, it was because the clear low point of the season before Tuesday’s humbling loss to the Penguins was the 6-1 thrashing they received three months ago in the very same arena.
What was really striking about that loss three months ago was that there was no response, no resolve whatsoever. And while the Leafs managed to pull back two goals and stop the bleeding tonight as the Penguins let off the gas, that same harrowing feeling — fragile and apathetic — seemed to hang over the team just the same.
While Mike Babcock had one more chance to deliver a result a few nights later in Las Vegas (or Kyle Dubas just needed the time to push the decision by the board), that loss in Pittsburgh seemed to reveal that the relationship with veteran head coach and team was beyond repair, and the chair was ultimately pulled out from underneath the once-celebrated bench boss.
While his successor is by no means facing a similar fate, you wonder with the trade deadline around the corner if the next lowest point in the season, when handed to them in eerily similar fashion, will trigger another major decision.
And sorry to some segments of the fanbase, but this is not what I’m getting at:
Miscast, all of them
There are a multitude of factors contributing to the slow decay the Leafs have experienced of late, and among them is the simple fact that in the absence of Morgan Rielly, each defenseman (with maybe the exception of Jake Muzzin) is having to play up at least one rung from their optimized slot in the lineup.
This seemed abundantly clear before tonight with the pseudo top pairing of Tyson Barrie and Travis Dermott, and the only solution for Sheldon Keefe was to continue to pull his players out of their most reasonable slots with the decision to promote the teenaged Rasmus Sandin.
However, the player that seems most in over his head at the moment is Justin Holl. And with that wonderful hockey sense of his, it didn’t take Sidney Crosby long to pick up on it.
Of course, it wasn’t just Holl who was schooled by the player who refuses to let his name slip from the conversation around the best in the world. With wizardry on the power play, he made two others being deployed outside their capabilities look hapless and silly, too.
43 for 34
Hey, not a total waste.
Auston Matthews made meaningful progress toward potentially earning his first career Rocket Richard Trophy in the loss, hammering a cross-ice feed off the stick of William Nylander from distance over the shoulder of Penguins netminder Tristan Jarry in the second period.
With 43 now, after converting another one with the new one-time shot added to his arsenal for this season, Matthews now has a one-goal lead over Boston’s David Pastrnak.
It’s not a 50-50 proposition with the slumping Alex Ovechkin just three goals back, but the odds of Matthews winning his second major award in just four seasons might be just about the same as the Leafs qualifying for the postseason.
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