Maple Leafs fall into the Stars' defensive trap

Stumbling early and always to begin periods, the Toronto Maple Leafs played directly into the hands of the league’s stingiest team. This time it was sure to cost them.

The Maple Leafs made it interesting late with a third-period push, but wound up falling 3-2 in regulation to the Dallas Stars on Thursday at Scotiabank Arena. Frederik Andersen made just 16 saves and took the loss in his return to the net after a week-long absence, while Auston Matthews pulled even with Boston’s David Pastrnak for the league lead in goals with his 41st of the season.

Toronto has consecutive road starts in Ottawa and Buffalo over the weekend.

Until then, four points:

The Stars didn't give the Leafs much room to breathe on Thursday. (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The disconnect

Only ever so often do we hear from Jake Muzzin after games, but when we do, he never fails to provide meaningful insight. It’s not an effort thing or some other cliche with him; Muzzin comes with examples and reasoning for why things went well, or why things failed.

Tonight, when speaking to the turnovers that led to goals against, Muzzin underscored an associated hazard with the chosen playing style under Sheldon Keefe. With players expected to read and react, and to toggle between pursuing quick-strike counters and instances with which they should take that second to assemble and build an attack through numbers, Muzzin said they found themselves caught in the middle versus the Stars.

“We were a little disconnected tonight,” he said.

Keefe agreed with Muzzin’s take, conceding that there are going to be breakdowns when players aren’t being programmed to just always go the simple route.

But simplicity can be a benefit to this team, and recognizing that can be immensely productive in certain situations.

Like when they have fallen behind against one the best, most organized defensive teams in the NHL.

“You give a team like them a lead and after that point, they’re really not trying to score much. They’re going to be in their structure the entire time. When that’s the case, it’s a real balance. Sometimes you want to go real fast, but you’re going real fast into a wall. So, you want to make sure you’re organized and then you get impatient,” Keefe said.

“It’s going to be an issue for us, at times. It’s even harder when a team is going to sit back and play in its structure like they do.”

Those starts

So, what caused the Leafs to repeatedly run themselves into the wall?

Well, through those horrible and repeated starts to periods.

The fight

You weren’t going to hear anyone knock Kyle Clifford for volunteering to exchange fists with six-foot-seven, 255-pound Stars defender Jamie Oleksiak — simply for the betterment of the team.

It was the “spark” they needed, said some, with others using the word “jump” instead. It was even called the “turning point” in the game, at least in terms of the run of play, and the coach loved the initial response from the bench and fans. And I guess it’s hard to argue these things, although the game did seem to take on a predictable flow as one diligently endeavoured to hold a lead.

But while it might have been nothing more than stating the obvious, or an effort to pump the tires of a new teammate, it did seem notable when Matthews said in his post-game scrum, “it’s something that we have missed here, the last couple years.”

Missed opportunity, lost opportunity?

Whether it was a tactical decision on his part or merely a matter of acceptance, Stars head coach Rick Bowness was apparently unafraid of a considerably lopsided matchup early on. Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander — together as a line for just the second time in their careers — logged almost five advantageous even-strength minutes against the Stars’ third pairing of Roman Polak and Oleksiak in the first period alone.

Naturally, the Leafs’ three most talented forwards owned the puck in those shifts, racking up a sizeable plus margin in terms of possession. But, in retrospect, it was a sizeable missed opportunity for the trio and the team itself. Because despite all the 10-1 advantage in terms of shot attempts, the control rang hollow, as the three didn’t produce a single shot on goal with those minutes.

Against two heavy-footed, highly-limited defenders, there was no better opportunity for that line to gain some meaningful traction after failing to do so in the win over the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday night. Instead, they lost that opportunity entirely before the midway mark of the second period when Sheldon Keefe switched out Nylander for the fixer, Zach Hyman.

Keefe wasn’t overly convincing when he said the three would have another shot together, and he hinted towards the potential long-term absence of Andreas Johnsson complicating things a little bit in the top nine.

So if it is the end of the Young Money line for now, they wound up with a collective dash-two and helped produce just six five-on-five shots in 22 minutes. Maybe not what we all had in mind.

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