‘Lots of Room to Improve’ For Maple Leafs After Loss to Wild
TORONTO — On Tuesday afternoon, Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau heaped praise on the Maple Leafs, saying “they’re not that far away” from being consistently successful.
More than 24 hours later, on Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre, the youthful Leafs were reminded by the Wild there’s still plenty of progress to be made.
The Leafs weren’t bad by any means — Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk, no surprise, was terrific in making 35 saves — but they weren’t as strong on the puck at times as they needed to be, and an older Minnesota team took advantage in front of a crowd of 18,944.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Wild handed the Leafs a 3-2 loss, its seventh win in a row against Toronto. Six of those victories have been decided by one goal.
And as you might have guessed, close is not nearly good enough for coach Mike Babcock.
Through 25 games, the Leafs (10-10-5) have 25 points. The goal for each five-game segment is to get six points, so in a perfect world for Babcock (or something close to it), the club would have 30 overall. In the segment that just finished, the Leafs managed five.
“If you keep doing what you are doing, that means you end up with around 82 points and you miss (the playoffs),” Babcock said.
“That’s not our priority or what we are planning on doing, so we are going to have to fix that. We start a new segment in Boston (against the Bruins on Saturday). I still think we have lots of room to improve to get better.
“We have done lots of good things. But … I get greedy. I want to be better. We look like we have a bunch of kids … they are good little players. We have to find a way to win every night. We have to be better. That’s the reality of the situation. We have hung in there just fine, but we need to have a (winning) segment coming up. That’s all there is to it.”
The loss dropped the Leafs to 8-4 at the ACC, where they play five of their next six games.
As for that playoff thing, well, good luck. Lots of hockey still to be played, sure, but the Leafs, who overall have been battling an illness that kept defenceman Martin Marincin out on Wednesday, find themselves eight points back of the second and final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
Entering the game, they were tied for last place in the conference with the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders.
Defensive troubles on the Leafs’ part resulted in all three Minnesota goals, starting before the first period hit the nine-minute mark.
Jason Zucker scored at 8:42 after Mikael Granlund and Mikko Koivu gave Nazem Kadri fits behind the Toronto net on the forecheck.
It was 2-0 for the visitors at 14:22 of the first, when local product Chris Stewart split the defence pair of Jake Gardiner and Connor Carrick like they weren’t even there, taking a great pass from Jared Spurgeon to break in on Frederik Andersen and beat the goalie with a forehand deke.
The Leafs got one back when Ben Smith scored on a Kadri rebound, but Eric Staal made it 3-1 early in the second thanks to another Leafs turnover.
Tyler Bozak scored a pretty goal on a backhand midway through the second, bringing to mind the kind of goal Mats Sundin often would score. That wound up being the last goal of the game.
The Leafs finished with 87 attempts to the Wild’s 41, but those early mistakes cost them. Consider that Minnesota had just 20 shots that actually reached Andersen, and yes, it’s a game the Leafs should have won.
“We shot ourselves in the foot, got behind the eight-ball, but I thought we had a strong effort trying to come back,” Bozak said.
“We can’t have breakdowns where we give up goals. It’s back to the drawing board. We have to find ways to win those games when we out-play teams and not get behind like that.”
‘SOSH DID NOTHING WRONG’
A fact is a fact.
And for Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, there’s a harsh reality for William Nylander, but not one that is unfair.
“The reality is, for him to play centre in the league, he is going to have to get way better defensively,” Babcock said.
Nylander started the game against the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday night on a line between Matt Martin and Ben Smith. It wasn’t long before Nylander was put on the wing with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov, while Nikita Soshnikov dropped to the fourth line.
“We were behind,” Babcock said after the Leafs lost 3-2. “Sosh did nothing wrong. Sosh plays hard.”
The leaning curve remains sharp for the 20-year-old Nylander.
He leads the Leafs with nine power-play points and has seven at even-strength. How he is used by Babcock as the season unfolds will continue to be a point of intrigue.