Having just watched his team implode against the worst team in the North Division, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe appeared incredulous after concluding his postgame Zoom conference with reporters.
After being told there were no more questions, Keefe paused, looked at the camera and shook his head, presumably still in disbelief after watching his team give up a four-goal lead in a 6-5 loss to the Ottawa Senators at Scotiabank Arena on Monday.
“We just gave the game to them at a time when they really had nothing happening,” Keefe said. “They only got what we gave them.”
The Leafs stormed out of the gate in the first period. Auston Matthews and Travis Boyd spotted Toronto a 2-0 lead. Despite controlling much of the play, the Senators escaped the first period down just 2-1 after Drake Batherson backhanded a shot past Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen. Tim Stutzle set up the Sens goal after knocking down a clearing attempt from Toronto defenseman Zach Bogosian before finding Batherson at 12:40.
Despite the Ottawa goal, the Leafs looked in control, as they didn’t allow their opposition another shot on goal for the duration of the period.
Toronto outshot Ottawa 13-3.
The Leafs responded in the second period by scoring the next three goals.
Pierre Engvall became the 18th different Leafs player to score a goal this season at 1:49.
Joe Thornton, making his return after missing the last 10 games with a rib fracture, scored on a pretty cross-ice dish from Matthews that made it 4-1 at 9:51. Matthews scored his second goal of the night while the Leafs were on a 5-on-3 power play at 19:01.
The Leafs looked like world-beaters taking no mercy against the bottom-feeders of the division.
But then we remember the Maple Leafs of last season. The team that lacked a fight or will to win on certain nights or only pushed themselves when it was too late.
Still with a power play, John Tavares turned a puck over to a forechecking Austin Watson, who found Nick Paul for a shorthanded goal at 19:51.
It was the last few minutes where Toronto wasn’t connecting on passes that foreshadowed what was possible and Keefe sensed it going into the second intermission.
“I said it after the second period that it was as bad I felt about a 5-2 lead, probably, that I ever had,” Keefe said. “We talked about cleaning things up in the third period and I thought we were in right frame of mind.”
Despite Toronto’s big lead, Ottawa had a better second period from a possession standpoint. They carried a 58.3 percent shot attempts (Corsi) edge at even strength over Toronto in the middle frame.
The Sens carried their momentum from scoring late in the second period into the third. Artem Zub scored his first NHL goal after taking a stretch pass from Chris Tierney while coming out of the penalty box and beating Andersen on a breakaway at 0:41.
Connor Brown cut Toronto’s lead to one goal, scoring just after a four-minute high sticking penalty to Zach Hyman had expired at 5:52.
Evgenii Dadonov batted in the tying goal with Ottawa’s net empty at 17:59.
“What I saw started before 5-1,” Keefe said. “Really careless and sloppy with the puck.”
Dandonov completed the comeback for Ottawa. First, he made a game-saving stop off Morgan Rielly’s shot before going back the other way with his second goal of the game in overtime at 2:19.
“They challenged us and we didn’t really respond,” Matthews said. “We definitely blew this one, for sure.”
The Leafs fell to 11-3-2 this season and the only team that owns a winning record against them this season is the Senators (2-1-0).
Some trends are concerning.
It was the second consecutive game where the Leafs gave up a third-period lead and the first time the team posted back-to-back losses this season (even if one of those resulted in a point).
Although Toronto finally scored a power-play goal for the first time in four games, it came on a 5-on-3 and they surrendered a shorthanded goal as well (nearly two if you count Zub’s goal).
William Nylander has played his last 15 games with just two goals. Tavares still has just one even-strength goal this season. The second line got some reinforcement with Zach Hyman on Monday, but it didn’t generate anything offensively.
Sure, the team imploded. And it’s natural if you are a fan of this team that this game conjured up painful memories of last season when the Leafs didn’t put forth an effort against an emergency goaltender (we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of that soon), or how the team performed during the 2020 playoffs.
But the Leafs are still in first place. For this reason, they still earn the benefit of the doubt.
“New day tomorrow,” Thornton said. “We’ll be ready for Wednesday.”