By DAVID SHOALTS
Tuesday, November 21, 2017
In a tale of two winning streaks, one was broken and another continued Monday night.
It was the Toronto Maple Leafs who saw theirs come to an end at six games with a 4-1 loss to the Arizona Coyotes. And the Coyotes finished a terrific road trip with three consecutive wins.
It seemed the Leafs would escape a loss late in the third period when Auston Matthews, who was until then noticeable only because he wasn't, scored at 16 minutes 10 seconds. But Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet challenged the goal on the basis of goaltender interference and won, which erased the tying goal.
The Leafs kept the heat on and a minute later Matthews hit the post.
The Coyotes survived a wild ride with Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen pulled for an extra skater as Max Domi scored an empty-net goal with a minute left. Tobias Rieder made it 4-1, also into the empty net.
There has been an epidemic of overconfidence greeting the Coyotes on their road trip through Canada over the past week with the Leafs providing the latest sample.
Yes, the Coyotes are the worst team in the NHL by far - they brought a 4-15-3 record to Toronto - but half of those wins came in the last two games of the trip when both the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators figured they could take the night off and still bag a couple of points - and then lost.
So it went for most of the first period on Monday night, when the Leafs pulled a no-show. Fortunately for them, one guy who came to play was Andersen, so they were only behind 2-1 by the start of the third period.
Andersen was other-worldly once again as he stopped the first nine shots of the game before the halfway mark of the first period to run his total saves over the past three games to more than 80. But his shutout string was never going to last forever, and the 10th shot, the last of a series on a Coyotes power play by Brendan Perlini at 9:53, gave the visitors a 1-0 lead.
Before the game, Leafs winger Mitch Marner, who played junior hockey with Coyotes forwards Domi and Christian Dvorak on the London Knights, took a prescient look at the evening ahead.
"They're a young team, just like us last year," Marner said. "They have a lot of talent. I don't think the scores have been going their way recently. We have to be ready for the storm and to push back, especially in the first 10 [minutes]."
By the time Perlini scored, that is exactly what happened. Just like last season's Maple Leafs, the Coyotes have enough young talent to run rings around teams in stretches. The shots on goal stood at 10-1 for the Coyotes after the first goal.
And even though the Leafs took a six-game winning streak into the game and were riding the karma of Matthews playing his 100th NHL game against his hometown team, not everyone was sanguine about their play of late.
"The good thing is we're winning games, but I don't think we're playing that good," Leafs veteran forward Leo Komarov said. "[Andersen] is obviously helping us a lot.
We're playing a little bit better defensively, but we've got to play a lot better."
Perhaps the Leafs' early desultory effort was the result of some noses out of joint when head coach Mike Babcock, as advertised, went back to his original line combinations. In Saturday's 6-0 win over the Canadiens, Babcock finally played Matthews and Marner together for a long stretch, in the former's first game back after a four-game injury absence, and they combined for two goals to give the fans a tantalizing glimpse of what was possible when the two most offensively creative players on the team were together.
But against the Coyotes, Marner was back on the fourth line with Dominic Moore and Matt Martin while Matthews was back between Zach Hyman and William Nylander.
Matthews, in particular, was mostly invisible - which in itself stood out - although he announced his presence with the aborted goal.
Babcock was unapologetic.
"The beauty of this is when you get to coach the team, you'll get to do what you want," he said after the game-day skate. "When I coach the team, I do what I want.
"This is what I think - I like to win every night. That's what I try to do. So I try to put the right people together for that. They're not together tonight."
By the time Perlini scored, there was probably a long list of people who wanted to tell Babcock, "Oh yeah?" However, the goal seemed to wake up the Leafs, who gradually played better as the period went on and by the second period they were in charge of the game.
The Coyotes went the way of most young and inexperienced teams that do not have a lot of depth and faded. A holding penalty to defenceman Kevin Connauton with eight seconds left in the first period cost the Coyotes the lead 33 seconds into the second, when Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk scored on the power play.
But the Leafs could not build on the lead even though they held the balance of play. They, too, took a penalty late in the period and Coyotes defenceman Oliver EkmanLarsson scored on the power play at 18:17 to give Arizona a 2-1 lead.
Arizona Coyotes defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson bounces off the boards after making contact with Maple Leafs centre William Nylander during the first period of Monday night's game in Toronto.
NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS