Here are five takeaways from the Maple Leafs’ 3-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings Saturday at Air Canada Centre:
Sparks, Leafs stumble out of the gate.
For the most part, Leafs goalie Garret Sparks hasn’t been at his peak in recent games, and the rookie continued to fight the puck Saturday against a desperate Wings team that fired 12 shots on him in the opening frame. Two of those shots – one from forward Brad Richards at 8:48; the other from defenceman Mike Green at 17:19 – beat him and gave the visitors a 2-0 advantage heading into the first intermission. Sparks wasn’t pleased with his play and said he’s demanding more from himself.
“I didn’t make enough saves to win,” Sparks said after the game. “All I had to do was make four saves in the third period to get us to overtime, and I couldn’t do it.”
The 22-year-old Sparks was hard on himself, but he is likely to be one of the Buds’ youngsters heading back to the American League in time for the Marlies’ playoff run, and a great performance undoubtedly would give his confidence a boost. Right now, he’s got a ways to go in order to return to the level Leafs fans first saw from him when he was recalled in late November.
Nylander’s astonishing speed puts Greening, Leafs on the scoresheet.
Rookie centre William Nylander continues to dazzle on numerous fronts after being brought up from the Marlies at the end of February – and Saturday, it was his ability to accelerate and leave his opponent in the dust that was dropping jaws. Coming out of the Wings’ corner with the puck early in the second frame, Nylander turned on the jets, broke clear from blueliner Kyle Quincey, and set up winger Colin Greening for his fourth goal of the season to cut Detroit’s lead to 2-1.
Nylander is still acclimating to the NHL game, but the more Leafs fans see him start to figure things out, the happier they should be. Few players can do the things he does at his speed, and that’s a very good thing for Toronto in the years ahead.
“He’s so young, but he’s got such a skill level,” winger P-A Parenteau said of Nylander, who scored his fifth of the season with 1:07 left in the third to make the score close. “Tonight he showed it – made a great pass on Greening’s goal, was skating around the offensive zone there, and at the end there, buried a nice pass from Naz (Kadri). He’s definitely getting there.”
Leafs pushed back in the middle frame – and again late in regulation time – but Wings’ goal early in third was the dagger.
Toronto outshot the visitors 14-10 in the second and had Detroit working hard to stay in the lead, but defenceman Kyle Quincey’s slapshot just inside the Leafs blueline beat Sparks at the 3:59 mark of the third period to restore the Wings’ two-goal advantage.
With Detroit pushing hard to secure a playoff spot, it was going to be next to impossible for the Buds to turn the game around, and despite Toronto outshooting the Wings 12-4 in the final 20 minutes, netminder Jimmy Howard was poised and stopped 32 shots on the night to give his team the victory.
Toronto’s power play couldn’t deliver.
The Leafs received three man advantages Saturday, including one at 12:24 of the third, but couldn’t solve Howard on any of them. The Wings, on the other hand, went 1-for-3 with the extra man. It’s been a recurring theme in these takeaways, but the NHL is a league where special teams can be and often are the difference between winning and losing, and Toronto has had issues with both units for much of the season.
“They’re very important,” Nylander said of special teams performance. “They had one power play goal, (and) if we could’ve had one, it would’ve been a tie game. It’s tight.”
“We had some chances, especially in the second period there,” added Parenteau. “It’s often the difference in this league. We did get better in the last few weeks. We’re playing better in our specialty teams for sure, but not enough tonight.”
You can bet head coach Mike Babcock & Co. will be addressing this area in the off-season and next year.
Babcock’s system on display at both ends of the ice.
Babcock’s system could be seen at both ends of the rink Saturday – the current version with the Leafs, and remnants of it with his former team in Detroit. Players recognized the similarities, and so did the man behind the blueprints.
“There’s a lot of similarities,” Parenteau said of the game. “It was a clog-off out there. They didn’t give us anything, especially early. It was a real defensive game, but we knew it was going to be like that.”
“Lots of things were similar,” Babcock added. “They’ve got a good hockey team, obviously lots of good talent on their team.”