Here are five takeaways from the Maple Leafs’ 4-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens Saturday at Bell Centre:
Leipsic’s speed, shot leads to Leafs’ first goal.
Rookie winger Brendan Leipsic scored his first NHL goal in his first NHL game exactly two weeks ago against Vancouver – and in his fourth career game in hockey’s top league Saturday, he recorded his first career assist. The 21-year-old corralled the puck just inside Toronto’s blueline and took off like a bullet, flying down the ice before firing a shot at Habs goalie Mike Condon; the rebound went directly to Buds defenseman Matt Hunwick, who scored his second goal of the season (and second as a Leaf) at the 5:29 mark of the first period to give Toronto a 1-0 advantage.
Leipsic finished the night with three shots on net in a career-best 18:17 of ice time. He is still acclimating to the NHL game, but he’s showing the things that made him so consistently dangerous with the AHL Marlies this season: he can skate with any player in the league, he’s got great instincts with the puck, and he’s tenacious enough to endear himself to his team and its fans and earn the ire of everyone else. It’s unfair to attach huge expectations to him, but it’s fair to acknowledge he’s a player capable of making an impact for this organization.
Second-period not an ideal one for Toronto defensively.
Montreal’s Alex Galchenyuk tied the game less than two minutes after Hunwick’s goal, but the two teams finished the period with the same number of shots (eight) and deserved to be tied after 20 minutes. However, the Leafs failed to play a disciplined game in the middle frame – three of the four penalties they were assessed during the contest came in the second period – and the Canadiens fired a whopping 19 shots on Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier in that second period.
One of those shots – from winger Devante Smith-Pelly – beat Bernier for what would prove to be the game-winner. And although it’s true the Habs hardly were a defensive juggernaut in the second (the Leafs had 14 shots on net in that frame), Toronto can’t surrender scoring chances at a rate that would lead to nearly 60 shots on net in 60 minutes of play and expect to emerge with a victory. Montreal added insurance with a pair of goals from captain Max Pacioretty in the third, but the second period was the fault line from which the Leafs’ game cracked and fell apart.
Hunwick’s return eases load on Leafs’ other blueliners.
Hunwick returned to the lineup for the first time since Feb. 15, when he played 20 minutes against the defending Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks. And while it was encouraging to see the 30-year-old contribute on offence, Hunwick’s bigger role in the wake of trades that made ex-Leafs out of Roman Polak and Dion Phaneuf is to be a veteran, stabilizing force for a very young defence corps.
Indeed, one of the reasons head coach Mike Babcock was able to scale back Morgan Rielly’s ice time – from more than 25 minutes a night in each of the past three games, including logging 28:48 Thursday against Carolina – is because Hunwick is back. He wound up playing 23:31 Saturday, and will be relied on in even-strength and penalty-kill situations for the rest of the season. That isn’t likely to change next year, either.
Injury bug bites Buds again.
Toronto’s lineup has been ravaged by injuries in recent weeks, and two more Leafs were knocked out of action before the third period began. First, winger P-A Parenteau was forced into the dressing room for the night after playing just 2:36 in the opening frame with an upper-body injury; then, centre Byron Froese had to leave the game late in the second after blocking a shot by Habs D-man P.K. Subban.
Toronto has a day off Sunday before taking on Tampa Bay Monday at Air Canada Centre, and it looks as if they’ll be needing a couple more bodies from the Marlies to fill out the roster.
It’s good to head home – but the ACC won’t be an easy place to play for the home team.
The Leafs headed home after the loss to the Habs, and while it will be nice for them to play before a supportive crowd at the ACC in three of their next four games, all three of those home tilts will come against teams that either are at or near the top of their division (the Bolts) or are desperately pushing to secure a playoff spot (the Minnesota Wild, who arrive in town next Thursday and the Ottawa Senators, who next Saturday will bring Phaneuf back to Toronto for the first time since he was traded).
Oh, and Toronto’s sole road game in the next week is in Washington on Wednesday against the powerhouse Capitals. The Leafs won’t have anywhere close to all hands on deck for any of those games, so only a consistent effort and a smart approach is going to put them in a winning position.