Don’t tell all those NHL wannanbes in the Maple Leafs lineup that Monday night was a meaningless exhibition game, devoid of stars and a letdown for those fans left holding expensive tickets.
This was their last chance to show Mike Babcock and Kyle Dubas they deserve to stay at Scotiabank Arena and not be assigned to the Marlies or become the whim of the NHL waiver wire.
Yet, few took advantage in a 5-1 loss to half of the Montreal Canadiens regulars, the Leafs first loss in five pre-season games. The announced crowd of 18,883, few remaining by game’s end, took up a half-derisive chant of “let’s go Marlies.”
AHL goalie of the year Garret Sparks, so-so in his first game in net last week, took the brunt of Montreal’s assault, allowing five goals on 23 shots through 40 minutes. Whether by design or not, Babcock put him back out to start the third to re-boot, though Curtis McElhinney will likely take his rightful place as Frederik Andersen’s back-up next week when the Habs are here for real.
Andreas Borgman, who beat out countryman Calle Rosen among others at last year’s camp for a bottom-six spot on defence, was a minus-4, beaten in speed and fortitude by Charles Hudon for a back-breaking goal in the second period. After that, Sparks’ attempt to move the puck behind his net ended up on Matthew Peca’s stick and eventually in the net as the Leafs goalie swam around trying to recover.
Toronto’s starting trio, the Leafs’ projected fourth line of Andreas Johnsson, Par Lindholm and Kasperi Kapanen, produced the home side’s lone goal. Connor Carrick and Justin Holl, two other defencemen hoping to make Babcock’s decision tougher, had some bumpy moments in the wake of Igor Ozhiganov and Rosen suddenly emerging as the potential third pairing.
The rest of the Leafs had difficulties exiting their zone much of the night.
Sparks was looking to rebound from some jittery moments against the Sabres on Friday and only saw a couple of shots in the first 10 minutes. He reacted in time to make the initial save on Jesperi Kotkaniemi when Holl accidentally steered the puck into the slot, but the rebound went right from Artturi Lehkonen’s skate to his stick for an empty netter.
Sparks was bumped by Michael Chaput on a screen shot from Xavier Ouellet, but not enough for the boys in the video replay booth to reverse the Leafs challenge after the puck found a hole on his blocker side. Lehkonen and Ouellet scored twice, while Antti Niemi made 29 saves.
Babcock and Montreal coach Claude Julien tailored their lineups to have challenges for the players of all skill ranges involved, with the Habs sure to have their hands full when Toronto’s big guns show up at the Bell Centre on Wednesday.
DO LEAFS HAVE HART?
A few years ago, the Leafs would have been thrilled to have one player named by oddsmakers to have a 25-to-1 shot to be named Hart Trophy winner.
When the betting site bodog.ca sent out its latest MVP favourites on Monday afternoon, two Leafs were 10/1 favourites, Auston Matthews and John Tavares, tied for third with Alex Ovechkin, the Conn Smythe trophy winner from the Stanley Cup Champion Capitals, behind Connor McDavid (10/3) and Sidney Crosby (13/2).
A Leafs has not won the Hart winner Teeder Kennedy in 1955. The next group at 15/1 is Taylor Hall, Nikita Kucherov, Nathan MacKinnon and Mark Scheifele.
Plenty of on-line griping followed the release of the Leafs lineup on Sunday night for this game. Scalpers outside SBA were not attracting many customers, most wearing the sweaters of Matthews, Tavares and Mitch Marner.
Scouts from 15 teams were at the game with final waiver decisions to come in a week … There was at least one more game for 2018 No. 1 pick Rasmus Sandin to get used to the NHL milieu, but it might have been his least impressive night. He did play some of the 5-on-3 power play the Leafs had in the second period, with some good looks but his shot did not get through … Adam Brooks and Jeremy Bracco, so effective in their first two games, also were having issues with bigger Montreal players … While Toronto gave projected Marlies defenceman Jordan Subban his first NHL pre-season start, the Habs had former Leaf Byron Froese and draft pick defenceman Rinat Valiev in the lineup. Valiev was dealt for Kyle Baun, grandson of Bobby, who didn’t come back to Leaf cap and has three assists in two games in the British league with the Belfast Giants … The Marlies announced their initial training camp roster on Monday, with no surprise demotions among those still fighting for a spot with the Leafs. There were even two NHLers added on tryout, veteran goalie Justin Peters and defenceman Kyle Cumiskey, who played 139 games with Chicago and Colorado … The alternates ‘As’ went to Kapanen, Carrick and Colin Greening.