So much for following through on coach Mike Babcock’s thought process.
The Maple Leafs coach, his team coming off a shutout loss against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night, said on Saturday morning that he “would like to think we’re a desperate team.”
As it turned out against the St. Louis Blues at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday night, not quite.
Not even close to desperate for much the evening, really, as the Blues, with one win in their previous six games, suffocated the Leafs, holding Toronto to 23 shots on goal in a 4-1 victory.
When Morgan Rielly scored at 4:22 of the third period, it not only ended the Leafs’ scoring drought at 116 minutes 37 seconds, the goal ensured that the Leafs would not be shut out in back-to-back games for the first time since Feb. 28 and March 1, 2015, when they lost 4-0 at Montreal and 4-0 at Washington.
All that Leafs offence to start the 2018-19 season, accomplished just earlier this month, seems so long ago. Babcock switched his lines up to an extent and had Rielly and Jake Gardiner playing together, but no matter who the Leafs had as linemates, there was little jump in any combination.
The Leafs could not score during a late power play, and with Frederik Andersen on the bench, Ivan Barbashev scored into an empty net.
A shot by Rielly got through some traffic and past Blues goalie Jake Allen. Mitch Marner and Gardiner assisted on the goal.
Auston Matthews became one of just five players in NHL history to record multiple points in each of his team’s first seven games to open a season, and of the four previous players to do so, all went to score 50 goals and record 100 points in that season.
But Matthews should be happy the Leafs don’t play the Blues more often. St. Louis remains the lone NHL club against which Matthews does not have a point; the only other teams to keep him from scoring a goal are the Calgary Flames and Philadelphia Flyers.
Matthews has no points against the Blues in five career games. Against the rest of the NHL, Matthews has 148 points (84 goals and 64 assists) in 148 games.
The Blues erupted in the second period for three goals, which is to say the Leafs didn’t have much going for them, and dare we say it, didn’t appear to care too much either.
Put it this way — the passion that Babcock would love to see out of his players was not evident.
Robert Bortuzzo got the visitors on the scoreboard at 4:45 when his shot from the point deflected off Igor Ozhiganov and past Andersen.
At 13:05, Zach Sanford zipped a quick shot over Andersen’s catching glove and at 16:37, Ryan O’Reilly smacked the puck from the edge of the crease past Andersen. The O’Reilly goal, his first with the Blues, came four seconds after Nazem Kadri finished serving a tripping penalty.
Neither team was on fire in the first period, though the Blues’ Vladimir Tarasenko hit the post during the only power play for either side.
Shots on goal in the the opening 20 minutes were 6-4 for St. Louis — the lowest combined total by both teams in any Leafs period this season.
Kadri, meanwhile, saw his goalless streak to start the season stretch to nine games.
The Leafs, now 6-3-0, were scheduled to practise on Sunday, a rarity, to begin preparations for a game in Winnipeg against the Jets on Wednesday.
NO ROOM FOR GARDINER?
As Tyler Bozak competed against the Leafs in the opposition’s sweater, Gardiner probably couldn’t help but wonder if his future holds a similar scenario.
Gardiner, making $4.05 million US this season, is in the final year of his contract with unrestricted free agency looming next summer.
Gardiner said he does not worry about his future, but with the Leafs needing money to sign Matthews, Marner and Kasperi Kapanen, not to mention William Nylander, Gardiner knows there might not be a lot of room for him. Presumably he will be looking for a nice raise, though it’s worth mentioning that Rielly is the highest-paid Leafs defenceman with an annual cap hit of $5 million through 2021-22.
“You look at the talent we have and the cap space, and it’s going to be tough,” Gardiner said. “We will see what happens.
“The good way to approach it is you put it all aside, just play hockey. We have a good team here, we’re in a good spot to succeed and I’ll just focus on winning hockey games.
“If the Leafs want to do something, we still start talking, but until then, we’ll just keep playing.”
We asked Babcock following the morning skate about the possible uncertainty with Gardiner’s future, and in a condescending tone (which Babcock has been falling back on a little more regularly with reporters this season), the coach said: “I don’t know if it’s as uncertain as you think it is.”
Perhaps the Leafs already have made a decision on Gardiner. It’s believed there is no rush on the part of Gardiner to get into deep negotiations, and serious talks have not commenced.
Some money will be freed up on the Leafs’ blue line following this season as Ron Hainsey and Martin Marincin also are heading for unrestricted free agency.
However, Travis Dermott will be in need of a new contract in the summer of 2020 as a restricted free agent. With the way Dermott is developing, he is not going to come cheap for the Leafs.
Easing the unknown for Gardiner was the birth of his son, Henry, in September.
“I was pretty good about letting go of stuff before, whether it was a bad game, and now it’s even easier,” Gardiner said. “You go home and look at Henry and he’s sitting there smiling, doesn’t know what’s going on, doesn’t know if I had a bad game. He just wants to see me. And you love him so much, so it makes it a lot easier.”
Bozak played in his 601st NHL game on Saturday night, and considering the first 594 were for Toronto, one can imagine the emotions the Blues centre experienced when he stepped on the ice.
Bozak took the opening faceoff against John Tavares, and won.
During a TV timeout in the first period, the Leafs honoured Bozak with a video tribute of his highlights in Toronto, during which the fans gave a standing ovation. Once the video was done, Bozak saluted the fans with a raised stick and visibly exhaled.
Bozak’s parents, Mitch and Karon, and his wife Molly and children Kanon and Blake travelled to Toronto for the game. On Friday night, Bozak, who signed a three-year contract with the Blues in July, and several Leafs ex-teammates got together for dinner.
“I made a lot of memories here,” Bozak said after the morning skate. “I came here as a young guy and I left with a family. Essentially grew up and became a man here.
“My son Kanon was born here. A lot of good memories, a lot of friendships that I will have for the rest of my life were made in this city. Met a lot of great people. It holds a special place in my heart.”
The Blues arrived in Toronto on Thursday morning after playing in Montreal the night before, but Saturday marked Bozak’s first steps back in the Scotiabank Arena.
“It didn’t feel too weird the last couple of days when we were here (including practices at the Coca-Cola Coliseum), saw a few of the guys, but being at the rink and going out there, I’m not going to lie, it felt a little weird,” Bozak said, regarding the morning skate.
With one win in his team’s first six games and in search of a different (or desperate) approach, Blues coach Mike Yeo had to pull some unique strings and a casualty was 35-year-old defenceman Jay Bouwmeester, who was a healthy scratch. A veteran of 1,112 NHL games, Bouwmeester said he had never been scratched before. “It’s the nature of the business,” Bouwmeester said. “You deal with it, that’s all you can do.” Yeo said the decision to sit Bouwmeester was “very difficult.” With the changes the Blues made during the off-season after missing the playoffs last spring, Yeo is on the hot seat … Babcock on Marner’s growth during the past year: “He’s just a way stronger person. He’s way thicker, he’s 10 pounds heavier and he knows how to play with and without the puck. Everyone talks about Mitch’s offence, but to me, when he’s playing really well, he’s one of the best defensive forwards we have because he is on the puck so hard. He’s above you, he’s smart, he angles you, he cuts things off and he gets the puck back for his line.”