Here are five takeaways from the Maple Leafs’ 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild Thursday at Air Canada Centre:
Toronto scores first, but Wild claw their way to victory on the strength of their power play.
After a scoreless opening period, the Leafs got the game’s first goal (courtesy of blueliner Jake Gardiner, who scored his sixth of the year at 7:33 of the middle frame) for the third time in their past five games, but Minnesota tied Toronto’s offence down the rest of the night, and the visitors’ power play struck twice in four opportunities to claim the win.
Each team finished the contest with 22 shots – and although the Leafs didn’t allow the hard-charging Wild (who with the win improved to 7-3-0 in their past 10 games) to walk all over them, they once again failed to produce enough offence in front of goalie Garret Sparks to expect to win. In Toronto’s current four-game losing streak, they’ve scored just one goal three times, and put the puck in the net only twice in the other game.
I know what you want to know: How did the kids do?
Thursday’s game was the third NHL game for a quartet of Leafs youngsters, and though none of them produced any points against the Wild, the foursome – William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Soshnikov and Zach Hyman – continued to learn about playing at hockey’s highest level.
For the first time, Hyman led the four rookies in minutes with 17:51 – including 2:52 on the penalty kill – followed by Nylander (15:38), Kapanen (14:53) and Soshnikov (12:32), while a fifth first-year Leaf, winger Brendan Leipsic, clocked in at 14:06. None of them are going to flip a switch to become a superstar at this level - instead, they’ll have to put in the work night-in and night-out, even when the end result isn’t positive, to eventually make themselves a winning unit.
Leipsic and Soshnikov aren’t big in physical stature, but they are in spirit.
They’re two of the smallest players on Toronto’s roster, but both Leipsic and Soshnikov play fearlessly and without regard for the laws of physics. They each had four hits – only Leafs winger Colin Greening had more, with five – and give the Leafs a snarl that hasn’t always been there in recent seasons.
If Mike Babcock ever decides to put the two youngsters on the ice at the same time as fellow under-your-skin-type Leafs Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov, we might see a Buds opponent take four individual penalties at the same time. It shouldn’t be fun to play the Leafs, and as Soshnikov and Leipsic settle in at the NHL level, it’s not going to be.
Another late-game push by the Leafs fell short.
Sparks kept his teammates within one goal of the Wild, but, in what is becoming a familiar theme in the past few games, the Leafs’ late-game drive to send the tilt to overtime was ultimately unsuccessful.
This time around, head coach Mike Babcock did finish the game leaning on veterans Kadri, Komarov and Peter Holland, but after he pulled Sparks with approximately two-and-a-half minutes left, Babcock also employed Nylander, Kapanen and Hyman as well. Not ending your effort before the final horn blows is important for this young Leafs team, and they probably deserve a better fate for the way they’ve fought, but in the NHL, nobody gives you anything for free. They’re going to have to keep pushing.
Morgan Rielly still doing the heavy lifting on ‘D’.
Rielly amassed a team-best 27:25 of ice time Thursday, the eighth straight game he’s logged at least 22 minutes. And in six of those eight games, he’s played at least 24 minutes. Sometimes it’s easy to forget the 21-year-old is only in his third NHL season, but Rielly’s dependability is invaluable on this Toronto team. He’s still got room to grow, but he’s already raised his game considerably.