The Maple Leafs made one crucial misstep by being asleep to start the game, and ultimately paid for it in a hard-fought and tightly-contested game against the Cup champs on the road.

While the Leafs’ first shift was inexcusable and they were largely pushed around in the opening period, they have certainly won games where they’ve played much worse. The Leafs stuck to the gameplan after the early goal against and slowly found their footing in the game, dictating possession in the second half. There were a couple of doorstep chances for JvR and Panik in the third period, but the Leafs just couldn’t get one by a spectacular-when-called-upon Martin Jones. The Kings slowed the game down to a crawl in the third period, choking the Leafs out as the strongest third period defensive team in the League does. Toronto carried a decisive edge in possession in the final period, but any scoring chance had to be fought for tooth and nail with painstaking spells of board play.

[quote_box_right]You look at all the top teams in the West, and they all play tight defense. You just have to get comfortable playing that way. You’re going to be in more games and you’re going to take advantage of teams that don’t play that way more often. We’re working harder, we’re giving up less chances, we’re making strides. – Peter Horachek[/quote_box_right]

It’s visually and statistically evident the Leafs have bought into what Horachek is preaching in the first three games. The forwards are cheating far less, consistently tracking back defensively, and building out in five-man units from deeper in their zone to provide options on the breakout. Two losses in three games and this loss in particular will be a good test of their resolve, though. They played the right way and put in honest efforts nearly across the board, but they couldn’t break the goose egg. Do habits of cutting corners for more offensive looks creep back into their game, or do they stick with the process? Peter Horachek isn’t likely to beat his team up after this one for that reason.

Interestingly, while we’d have to rewatch to make sure, it looked like Horachek never put Bozak, Kessel and JvR together for a shift while chasing the lead. The Komarov injury forced some juggling on the wing, and Panik took some shifts with the top line instead of Winnik, but he seems to be sticking by combinations that are leading to more cycle/offensive zone time up and down the lineup. Unfortunately, the Leafs didn’t get rewarded for their efforts in those areas tonight. Hopefully they feel good about the effort they put in nonetheless and feel some pride and satisfaction in having left it all out there.

Ask yourselves if, a few weeks ago, you would’ve thought it was possible for the Leafs to give up just 20 shots in consecutive games (something they haven’t accomplished since 2008) and to have a possession chart like this against the best possession team in the League on the road:

chart

 

Limiting the Kings to 48 shot attempts is the fifth fewest they’ve generated in 60 minutes this season (43GP).

The Leafs, as constituted, are likely never going to be able to win enough games in the brand of hockey they were playing tonight, but maybe they aren’t as far off as they’ve often made it look. But three games is three games; let’s see if they can keep building. It doesn’t get any easier with Anaheim, San Jose and St. Louis next up on the docket.

Komarov update:

Shot Location Chart

leafskingsshotlocation

Kings 2 vs. Leafs 0 Game Sheet - January 12

PLAYERPOSGAP+/-PIMSHITSBKSGVATKAFO%PP TOISH TOITOI
D. PhaneufD000-1022000-3:511:1722:28
C. FransonD000-1014110-3:062:0123:26
S. RobidasD0000005000-0:002:0517:01
R. PanikR000-1042000-2:090:0018:34
D. BoothL0000201000100%0:002:0415:00
J. van RiemsdykL000-20120000%3:510:0017:55
T. SmithC000000001033%0:002:166:19
M. SantorelliC000001000060%0:000:2115:43
D. WinnikC00000150000%0:002:1720:31
T. BodieR0000500000-0:000:002:51
T. BozakC000-100110144%3:290:1919:19
N. KadriC000-203000074%2:310:0417:58
M. RiellyD000-1001210-2:540:3820:18
R. PolakD0000004310-0:051:5519:13
L. KomarovC000000201050%0:000:395:18
J. GardinerD000-1030020-2:040:0417:34
D. ClarksonR0000201000100%2:090:0012:59
P. KesselR000-1230000-3:510:0022:37
GoalieSAVES - SHOTSSV%PIMTOI
J. BernierÊ(L)Ê18 - 190.947058:56:00
REVIEW OVERVIEW
Offence
45 %
Defence
85 %
Goaltending
90 %
Special Teams
50 %
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Alec Brownscombe is the founder and editor of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He's published five magazines on the team entitled "The Maple Leafs Annual" with distribution in Chapters and newsstands across the country. He also co-hosts "The Battle of the Atlantic," a weekly show on TSN1200 that covers the Leafs and the NHL in-depth. Alec is a graduate of Trent University and Algonquin College with his diploma in Journalism. In 2014, he was awarded Canada's Best Hockey Blogger honours by Molson Canadian. You can contact him at alec.brownscombe@mapleleafshotstove.com.