It’s been a tough week for the Toronto Maple Leafs. In a week where the Boston Bruins’ record-setting streak ended, the Maple Leafs had a chance to pick up points in the race for home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
They didn’t do it.
Item One: Maple Leafs Two-Game Losing Streak
The team played a horrible game against the Tampa Bay Lightning (53-13-4), almost everyone’s choice as the best team in the NHL, and lost 6-2 on home ice. The team then followed that game up with another disappointing home-ice 5-4 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks (now 31-30-9). The suddenly improving Blackhawks, now having won four games in a row to sneak into playoff contention, had to hold off a wild offensive push by the Maple Leafs.
Behind 4-0 after the first period and 5-1 after the second period, the Maple Leafs came roaring back during the third period, registering 30 shots on goal. But it was too little, too late. Frederik Andersen was replaced in goal for the second straight game by backup Garret Sparks.
Sparks has played solidly in goal during each of the last two games, but took the loss Wednesday when the Blackhawks scored the fifth goal. Sparks stopped 24 of 25 shots; but, by that time, the damage had been done and the team couldn’t overcome the huge deficit.
This two-game losing streak comes at exactly the wrong time and at the wrong place (home ice) for the team. It will be interesting to see how fans react going forward. They certainly showed the team how they felt in the loss to the Lightning and after the first period of the Blackhawks’ game. Boos were hurled at the team in both games.
But, more went on this week than the Maple Leafs’ two-game losing streak, as I share below.
Item Two: Rielly Found Innocent of Homophobic Slur
During the Maple Leafs and Lightning game, television cameras and sound equipment seemed to pick up what sounded like a homophobic slur just before the second period ended as Morgan Rielly and Lightning forward Yanni Gourde skated after a puck. Rielly, who seemed to be complaining about a non-penalty call from referee Brad Meier during a Maple Leafs power play, was at first thought to be the perpetrator of the slur. Certainly, those allegations were prevalent on social media. However, Rielly denied it.
Because the offense was so serious, the league quickly investigated the incident. That investigation exonerated Rielly of any anti-gay remarks. As a result, the NHL issued an announcement that the Maple Leafs’ defenceman did not use a homophobic slur on the ice.
In truth, it’s not clear anyone did. Rielly reported that he didn’t hear anyone slur anyone. He was adamant that he didn’t say anything. He noted: “I’m very happy that it came out today, that the word wasn’t used by me. I think it’s an opportunity for us as a team to realize that there’s really no place for slurs like that.” He also added, ” When it’s a topic that’s very serious, you tend to think what may have been said.”
Item Three: Kapanen out With Concussion, Other Injuries
The Maple Leafs’ 22-year-old Kasperi Kapanen was listed as out for “precautionary reasons due to illness” on Monday night against the Lightning. But, Wednesday morning prior to the game against the Blackhawks, it was announced that Kapanen had suffered a concussion.
He will be missed for his speed and work ethic on the ice. Babcock also noted, “Kappy’s a real good penalty killer” and suggested that “It’s opportunity, too, for someone else.” William Nylander was tabbed to skate beside his last year’s linemate Auston Matthews and rookie Andreas Johnsson for the second game in a row. Matthews and Johnsson each had a goal and an assist against the Blackhawks; Nylander had two assists.
As far as other injuries, Jake Gardiner remains out with a bad back, and Travis Dermott remains out with a shoulder injury. Zach Hyman isn’t injured, but has the flu and was too ill to play against the Blackhawks. He’s been playing well lately and was missed.
Item Four: Collegiate Star Defenseman Duszak Signs
The Maple Leafs signed right-hand defenceman Joseph Duszak to a two-year future entry-level contract (it won’t kick in until next season) on Wednesday. Duszak attended Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, and had 16 goals and 47 points in 37 games in a breakout season. He’s expected to join the Toronto Marlies later this week on a tryout basis.
As my THW colleague Nathan Kanter noted, the 21-year-old Duszak is a typical Kyle Dubas signing because he’s smallish, at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, but he’s highly skilled. Duszak’s 47 points are the most scored by any NCAA defenseman since Justin Schultz’s 47 for the University of Wisconsin Badgers in 2010-11. The New York State native was named to the Atlantic Hockey Association’s all-conference second team last season.
As Dubas noted when he signed another small player in Nic Petan, “He’s a player that fits the way we want to play.” Obviously, Dubas prizes skill, speed, and talent over size and toughness and is trying to build that kind of team. The Maple Leafs need a right-handed defenseman this season, but that won’t likely be the 21-year-old Duszak. The earliest he will play with the Maple Leafs is next season.
The Maple Leafs complete their disappointing three-game homestand by hosting the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday evening. I can’t even imagine the fans’ reactions if they lose this game.