The good news is the Toronto Maple Leafs won’t miss the playoffs based solely on their embarrassing loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night. Emergency goalie David Ayres may have stolen the spotlight, but the Canes far from stole two points from the Leafs, who just didn’t show up when it mattered.
In that sense, the bad news is that well of bad losses is pretty deep. It’s full of other embarrassments on which the Leafs can look back, should what had been seen as impossible entering 2019-20, missing the playoffs, actually become a reality for this team of supposed contenders.
Canadiens Deal Maple Leafs First Loss of Season (Oct. 5)
This one could have been worse than it was, which is saying something, because it was pretty bad. The Leafs ended up losing 6-5 in a shootout to their historic rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, despite holding a 4-1 third-period lead.
The Leafs then proceeded to give up four straight in less than 10 minutes of action, with Brendan Gallagher leading the way with a goal and an assist in that span (one goal, two assists overall). Were it not for Auston Matthews’ game-tying tally with 1:15 left in the game, they would have lost both points altogether instead of just one.
In a sign of things to come, this was backup Michael Hutchinson’s first start of the season. He went on to lose (in regulation) his next five starts, leading general manager Kyle Dubas to eventually replace him with Jack Campbell in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings.
While Hutchinson had eventually started to string wins together, a 5-3 loss to the Florida Panthers on Feb. 3 effectively spelled the end of his tenure. In that one, Hutchinson came in to replace an injured Frederik Andersen and gave up three goals on 10 third-period shots, when the Leafs had been leading 3-1.
As a result of Hutchinson’s 4-9-1 record (3.66 goals-against average and .886 save percentage), who knows how many realistically winnable points the failed Leafs backup plan left on the board this season?
Lightning Put Maple Leafs in Their Place with 7-3 Rout (Oct. 10)
There’s no backup to blame here, even if Hutchinson did make an appearance in relief of a starting Andersen. Andersen was pulled after giving up all seven goals the Lightning scored on 28 shots.
If anyone was to blame (aside from all of the Leafs themselves), look no further than ex-head coach Mike Babcock who somewhat jokingly poked the bear heading into the game. It was Brayden Point’s first game of the season, and Lighting head coach Jon Cooper opted to put him on a super line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. That prompted Babcock to rhetorically ask himself (aloud in front of reporters), “I’m not sure there’s enough puck to go around. We can find out.”
The Lightning were more than happy to oblige him in what turned out to be a successful season debut for Point. He scored two goals and one assist. Stamkos had one goal and three assists. Kucherov meanwhile led the charge with two goals and two assists.
It’s of course plenty embarrassing to think of yourselves as contenders and then lose decisively to the reigning Presidents’ Trophy champions. However, it’s more embarrassing when you consider the Lightning started out of the gates relatively slowly. They went 6-4-2 in October and were just 17-13-4 in December before they rattled off a 10-game winning streak and first established their dominance this season.
So, the Leafs didn’t just lose to the Lightning. They got routed by the Lightning before they arguably were even the Lightning.
Capitals Punish Maple Leafs with Three-Goal Flurry (Oct. 16)
Speaking of losses to contenders, Babcock effectively threw Hutchinson to the wolves in the second night of a back-to-back against the Washington Capitals, which the Leafs lost 4-3.
Whereas Andersen got the relatively lowly Minnesota Wild, Hutchinson drew the Capitals. In retrospect, maybe the hockey community didn’t need a bunch of Babcock horror stories to come out of the woodwork to question his fitness as a head coach.
So, to the surprise of no one, the Capitals shelled Hutchinson for four goals. To the surprise of the Leafs’ “defense,” three of them came in just 1:18 in the second period. James Norris Memorial Trophy-candidate John Carlson had one goal and an assist in that three-goal second and added another assist on a first-period goal, which gave the Caps four straight. Leafs captain John Tavares cut the deficit to one with a few minutes to go in the game, but it obviously wasn’t enough.
Crosby-less Penguins Blow Out Maple Leafs (Nov. 16)
It’s one thing to lose the Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s another to lose to the Pens without Sidney Crosby. Granted, overall the Penguins went an impressive 18-6-4 without Crosby, who missed over two months of action following sports-hernia surgery. However, up until the point at which they played the Maple Leafs, the Penguins had been 0-1-1 without him.
What’s more of an indictment of the Leafs’ efforts in this 6-1 loss to them on Nov. 16 is how the Penguins went a mediocre 4-3-3 in November after Crosby went down. In other words, the Penguins had not yet found their legs without him. This game should have been winnable. Instead, the Leafs only served to break secondary-scorer Dominik Kahun, who up until that point had just seven points in 18 points, out of his slump, letting him score two goals and an assist.
While the Maple Leafs’ latest loss to the Penguins (5-2 on Feb. 18) received its own share of criticism, they followed it up with a 4-0 win over the Penguins just two days later (and admittedly the debacle to the Hurricanes two days after that). The Leafs nevertheless followed up their 6-1 Nov. 16 loss to the Pens with a 4-2 defeat at the hands of the Vegas Golden Knights, which was their sixth loss in a row… and Babcock’s final game with the Leafs.
One might think this loss should be viewed more positively as a result, because it helped to bring about change. However, seeing as the Leafs are falling into the same bad habits under Babcock’s replacement, Sheldon Keefe, not so much.
Maple Leafs Enter All-Star Break with Loss to Blackhawks (Jan. 18)
To the Maple Leafs’ credit, they haven’t really lost to bottom-feeders this season. They’ve generally beaten the teams they should be beating, while losing to teams against whom they need to win in the race for a playoff spot. One exception to the rule has been the Chicago Blackhawks, against whom the Leafs are 0-2 this season.
Their first such loss (5-4 on Nov. 10) was bad enough. However, the Leafs outshot the Blackhawks 57-34 in that one and arguably just ran into a hot Robin Lehner. In contrast, their loss to the Blackhawks on Jan. 18 was over almost as soon as it began, as the Leafs gave up three in the first period, including the game-opening tally to Drake Caggiula at the 21-second mark.
So, the only possible excuse they might be able to muster up with regard to their 6-2 loss? Other than it being the Leafs’ last game before their bye week and the All-Star Game and that they were clearly already on vacation? It came during a resurgence of sorts for the Blackhawks who beat the Leafs for their fourth straight in the middle of a five-game winning steak.
Still, consider the fact the Blackhawks fell right back out of the Western Conference playoff race. They went 3-6-2 immediately after it was over. Break up that five-game streak by taking away this win and it instead consists of a modest three wins in a row and then a mediocre 4-6-2 stretch. As a result, it was arguably the Leafs who made the Blackhawks look good and not the other way around, especially seeing as they are now 14 points back of third place in the Central Division.
In the Maple Leafs’ defense, they are still holding down a playoff spot. They are 32-23-8 on the season and two points up on the 11th–place Florida Panthers for third in the Atlantic.
Obviously they’re still in a precarious position and can lose hold of their spot at any given moment. Needless to say, they especially don’t need to live through another moment even half as embarrassing as the one they delivered this past Saturday. In such an instance, they won’t even deserve to make the playoffs.
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After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.