By DAVID SHOALTS
Wednesday, January 17, 2018
The Toronto Maple Leafs had a win in their grasp but an ugly finish saw them give it away to the St. Louis Blues.
Defenceman Vince Dunn scored one minute 43 seconds into overtime to complete a Blues comeback in the last few minutes of the third period for a 2-1 win.
It was the Leafs' third consecutive loss.
Both teams were coming off their fiveday break in the NHL schedule and the game reflected the rustiness.
Seconds before Dunn scored, the Leafs had the best scoring chance in overtime, but Blues goaltender Carter Hutton stopped William Nylander on a breakaway.
Some heady play by Connor Brown allowed him to break the scoring deadlock midway through the third period with a shorthanded goal. First he got his stick on a saucer pass intended for Blues defenceman Alex Pietrangelo at the point. This started the puck bouncing and it skipped through Pietrangelo.
Brown got a step on Pietrangelo in the race for the puck and was rewarded with a breakaway after the Blues defenceman unsuccessfully dove for the puck. Then he roofed a shot on the Blues' Hutton for his 11th goal of the season.
However, the Leafs could not hold on for the rest of the period as Alexander Steen scored with 57 seconds left to force overtime.
While the game was more or less what could be expected with both teams coming off their five-day breaks, it was not an overly sloppy affair. The lack of scoring - the teams went into the third period tied 0-0 - indicated the rustiness of the shooters, but there were some interesting moments.
A lot of the interest was provided by Leafs rookie defenceman Travis Dermott, who once again played well in his third NHL game since being promoted from the Toronto Marlies farm team on Jan. 6.
He moved the puck crisply out of the Leafs zone, making that hard, accurate first pass on several occasions.
The only hiccup for the 21-year-old came midway through the second period when he batted a clearing attempt right to a Blues forward. But goaltender Frederik Andersen bailed out Dermott with a nice glove save.
It was no coincidence that Dermott and another recent call-up for the Leafs, centre Frederik Gauthier, were two of the sharper players on the ice. Both were sent back to the Marlies for the five-day break and both played in two games last weekend.
Gauthier had six hits through two periods, as the Leafs' fourth line did a reasonably good job with its limited ice time.
Dermott's smooth transition from the American Hockey League to the NHL raises the question of what happens to the three-man rotation Leafs head coach Mike Babcock committed himself to after the rookie was called up.
Connor Carrick, who played with Jake Gardiner against the Blues, and Andreas Borgman, who sat in the press box, are the others in the rotation.
Also playing a role in the ice-time squeeze is Nikita Zaitsev, who is out with a suspected broken foot. He is expected back by the end of January and will return to the No. 2 defence pair with Gardiner. This probably means two of the designated three rotating defencemen will be out of the lineup for each game. If Dermott keeps playing like he has in his first three games, then Carrick and Borgman could be sitting a lot more.
The Blues got off to a better start than the Leafs at the opening faceoff and controlled the play for most of the first period. They outshot the Leafs 14-7 in the first period, although the shot attempts were much closer, 20-17 for the Blues.
However, the edge in play was not wholly in the Blues' favour, as the Leafs managed some offensive surges in the opening period. But they did need Andersen to bail them out several times with some big saves.
"They go to the net and they like to shoot pucks," Andersen said of the Blues before the game. "I've got to be ready for that. They try to get in front, get some screens. We have to be ready to try and box them out and I have to be ready to fight through some screens."
The best of the Leafs forwards was centre Auston Matthews. He won 10 of his 11 faceoffs through the first 40 minutes and created several scoring chances with linemates Nylander and Zach Hyman.
Matthews said he appreciated the break in the schedule, but didn't think it had to be five days.
"It's good to get away from the rink a little bit and get your mind off hockey," said Matthews, who spent most of the time off in the sun. "I think when you come back, you're definitely kind of hungry to get back into things. You miss it a little bit.
"You have a couple days [off] and once you're on the flight back you're itching to get back on the ice and get going for the season."
After his team's first practice on Monday, Babcock pointedly remarked the Leafs were only a .500 team since Christmas (3-3-2) and needed to sharpen up a few areas of their game. Matthews did not argue.
"There's a lot of things," Matthews said. "We're still a little ways away from where we think we can be. Just structure-wise we can be better and a lot smarter. Make sure we have guys above the puck and level with their guys and not give up odd-man rushes."
St. Louis Blues goaltender Carter Hutton watches the puck as teammate Alex Pietrangelo and the Maple Leafs' James van Riemsdyk jostle for position in front of the net during Tuesday night's game in Toronto.
NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS