From morning til night, the Maple Leafs were engaged in a strange disappearing act.
First, it was Auston Matthews, absent from the Friday morning skate with what turned out to be a knee strain that will sideline him three weeks. Then goalie Matt Murray, who led them out for the game against Ottawa, was on the bench for O Canada with what coach Sheldon Keefe said later significantly “flared up on him”, a new injury that will keep him out a few games and require a callup from the Marlies.
It put Ilya Samsonov in a difficult position on a night he was supposed to be resting and the hungry Ottawa Senators then phased out the discombobulated Leafs 6-2, scoring early and often at Scotiabank Arena.
Murray could not have played had Samsonov been hurt said Keefe and the arena’s emergency backup goaltender was on alert.
“It put Sammy in a terrible, terrible spot,” Keefe said. “And we didn’t take care of him when he was in there.
“To me, it was a game of missed opportunities and poorly timed penalties that were momentum-drainers.”
The Sens were all over Leafs miscues in Samsonov’s first regulation defeat on Bay St. this season (14-1-1).
Keefe observed pre-game that “it seems we always get the best version of Ottawa” in the Battle of Ontario and he was right on. The visitors earned their goals with more determination, though loose Leafs play helped.
“For sure, we took our foot off the gas,” said winger William Nylander, whose power-play goal briefly tied the game 2-2 in the second period. “That’s unacceptable. We have to work on that.”
While there’s understated pride in their record when Matthews is hurt or suspended, 31-16-2 entering Friday, the Leafs certainly could’ve used some of his 41 career points versus the Sens, 23 of them goals.
For Murray, it’s the second time he’s been removed before a game against his previous team, after suffering a groin injury in the morning skate on Oct. 15, a game Samsonov eventually won. Keefe had been adamant that Samsonov needed a break after the schedule got crammed.
Ottawa won at SBA in front of fans for the first time in more than four years, countering a 23-point difference in divisional standings.
Keefe’s new top two lines with Matthews gone, were both disrupted right away. Michael Bunting and Brady Tkachuk went off for a post-whistle scrum, breaking up Bunting, Tavares and Mitch Marner, with Thomas Chabot scoring 4-on-4. Then Pontus Holmberg served a double minor, which Toronto killed, but it still upset flow for his promotion with Nylander and Calle Jarnkrok. Holmberg served another minor, equalling his 30-game total in penalty minutes.
The usually reliable David Kampf line was on for two goals against, abetted by some sloppy work by defencemen, who were charged with 11 of the 17 team giveaways.
“(Matthews) will be missed, but we’re all going to respond really well,” Bunting said in the morning. “Johnny’s playing really good hockey and been doing it a long time, but playing with him, I have to get open, I know he likes going to the corners and the net and play a strong game. I know Mitchy and I will complement him.”
It was Toronto’s fourth line which tied it 1-1, a Joey Anderson shot finding the top corner on Anton Forsberg.
Tkachuk added two goals, while Derrick Brassard scored on the power play, his nice tip banking in off blueliner Timothy Liljegren’s stick. Drake Batherson buried a great look for a goal when the Leafs were knocked off the puck and Claude Giroux closed out the scoring on a nifty rush and dangle.
Marner did achieve his 40th assist on the Nylander goal, giving him seven seasons with that many, with only Darryl Sittler attaining more in nine years. Borje Salming also had seven.
“You can look at the effort to a certain extent, execution and turnovers,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly. “Lots of things we didn’t do well and lost to them in areas not just on the scoresheet.”
The Leafs are now 2-1 on a five-game homestand, with Washington here Sunday afternoon. then it’s their final pre-NHL all-star break appearance versus Boston on Wednesday.
“We have two more games, so we have to get better,” Rielly said. “I don’t think (they took the Sens lightly). We’re completely aware of this team and what they have.”
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