The concerning trend of the Toronto Maple Leafs putting forth a poor effort against a cellar-dweller team continued on Monday as the Leafs dropped a winnable game to the Arizona Coyotes by a score of 4-2.

Your game in 10:

1.   The first period unfolded roughly as you’d expect against a Coyotes team that is likely to finish 32nd in the league standings. The Leafs dominated play at 5v5 and got the best chance on Arizona’s opening power play through a 2-on-1 rush that Pierre Engvall fired into the body of Karel Vejmelka.

After that Coyote man-advantage ended, Sheldon Keefe deployed the makeshift line of William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner, and those three began what was over two minutes of near-continuous offensive-zone time, with a line change happening in the middle of it. They cycled the puck and skated circles around Arizona, a non-stop thrashing even if one didn’t get by the netminder.

To be clear, the failure to beat Vejmelka during that period seemed to be mostly puck luck and poor execution than anything else. The Leafs generated five high-danger chances in that period at 5v5 per Natural Stat Trick (to one for Arizona), but too many shots missed the net altogether, in addition to passes that were fractionally off from their intended target. It felt like the team was a tiny bit off, even if they were smothering Arizona.

It wasn’t until the 10:13 mark of the first period that the Coyotes got their first shot on net. Total shot attempts for the period (all situations) were 18-6 in Toronto’s favor.

2.     Unfortunately, the Leafs didn’t exit the period with the lead. After Calle Jarnkrök fired a shot into bodies and the puck pinballed out to center, he interfered with a Coyote racing out to collect it and was called for a penalty.

The Coyotes entered the game with a PP that is one of the team’s lone bright spots so far, and they showed why. Shayne Gostisbehere delivered an excellent pass to the slot for ex-Leaf Nick Ritchie, who beat Erik Källgren by banking it off the post and in.

As many Leafs fans commented on Twitter, betting on Nick Ritchie to score against the Leafs seemed like easy money pre-game, and sure enough…

Ritchie now has as many goals at Scotiabank Arena as a Coyote as he did with the Maple Leafs (1).

3.      The Ritchie goal, which came at the tail-end of the first period, seemed to be a turning point in the game. The Leafs were a lifeless carcass for the next 30 or so minutes.

That included the entirety of the second period, which has to be one of the worst periods the Maple Leafs have played over the last couple of seasons when we consider the quality of the opposition. Against a Coyotes roster that was built for the sole purpose of losing games, high-danger chances were 7-2 in Arizona’s favor in the second period at 5v5.

The Leafs glided around in the offensive zone, applying no pressure and rarely threatening in any way. In the defensive zone, they were outhustled and muscled off of pucks repeatedly. They were sloppy in the neutral zone and required saves like this one from Erik Källgren to keep the score close:

It was a completely embarrassing performance in the period. The Coyotes looked like the contender and the Leafs looked like the tanking squad.

4.     The Coyotes got their second in that middle stanza on a brutal sequence from Morgan Rielly along the boards, one that summed up the period:

Justin Holl also doesn’t give him much help there. That goal is a window into what the period was like: far too much standing around, generally lethargic play.

The Coyotes, while mostly made up of bad players, also have some bad players who are heavy and big. A quick glance at the depth chart reveals forwards like Nick Bjugstad, Nick Ritchie, Lawson Crouse, Christian Fischer, and Jack McBain, all of whom are 6’2″ or taller and 205 lbs. or heavier. If there’s one thing that Arizona can do on offense at 5v5 this year, it’s bang around on the forecheck.

The Leafs showed little interest in engaging in those battles and let Arizona have the puck. The gap in energy level between the two squads was jarring throughout the 30-minute stretch that ate up the middle portion of the contest.

5.      The third period began much like the second, with Toronto’s level of play best described as “comatose.” Once their fourth power-play opportunity expired, the Leafs combined for *zero* shots on goal in eight minutes of power-play time, and the Scotiabank Arena crowd showered the home team with boos.

The Coyotes continued to bog down the game when the Leafs were on the attack, which is another area of concern for me. Far too often under Sheldon Keefe, we have seen this team completely unable to generate offense when the opposition tries to park the bus. It happened in the bubble against Columbus, to some degree against Montreal, and late in the series against Tampa (definitely in Game 7).

When the Leafs are trying to claw back into a game and the opposition is fundamentally sound in structuring its defensive zone play to guard the high-danger areas, Toronto responds by endlessly cycling around the perimeter, looking for shooting lanes that will never open. For much of this game, the Leafs had a pitiful shots on goal total. Through two periods, the Leafs recorded just 13 total shots on net. Tack on the first 10 minutes of the third, and that total wasn’t much higher.

Maybe if they’re playing the late 1990s New Jersey Devils or Dallas Stars that is acceptable with a roster with this talent, but against the 2022-23 Arizona Coyotes, it’s a total failure.

The analytics boom in hockey put an emphasis on trying to eradicate throwing the puck at the net through seven bodies because it’s a low-percentage shot, which was a sound idea on the power play, but I think some teams (Leafs included) have swung too far in discouraging that shot. I harped on this in my post-game analysis pieces in the playoffs, but every so often firing a puck at the net when the opposing team is taking away all your dangerous stuff (access to the slot, cross-seam passes), is not a bad idea. Sometimes you’ll get a fortunate bounce out of it and every so often it will beat the goalie via a deflection. It’s better than skating around doing nothing while the time dwindles, that’s for sure.

6.     Speaking of shooting and hoping for a fortunate bounce, the Leafs finally scored with under eight minutes left in the third. John Tavares retrieved the puck, skated in a bit, and took the shot. The puck deflected off a Coyote defender right to William Nylander, who quickly snapped the rebound by Vejmelka:

This goal had been coming for a few minutes. Around the halfway point of the third period, you could sense the Leafs begin to pick their energy level up. They started to buzz at 5v5 again and create good looks. Though the Coyotes did a good job locking down their defensive zone, they couldn’t build an impenetrable fortress around the high-danger areas because they are, well, the 2022-23 Coyotes.

If the Leafs played balls to the wall, they were going to break through eventually because the talent gap is so wide. They got on the board via Nylander, and not long after, they scored the equalizer courtesy of Mitch Marner:

7.     The Marner goal came off aggressive forechecking from Alex Kerfoot, who hit the end boards hard after joining the top line in place of Michael Bunting. With his team playing so poorly, Keefe began to play around with different line combinations (including Calle Jarnkrök joining the Tavares line) and Kerfoot looked solid next to Marner and Auston Matthews. However, a big chunk of that may just have been the change in energy across the entire team as they seized control of the game back and put the Coyotes on their heels.

Lineup changes also came on defense, but that was because of more unfortunate circumstances. Jake Muzzin sustained an injury in the second period after taking a hit to the neck and was ruled out for the game at the start of the third period. Tonight was not Muzzin’s greatest showing pre-injury — the puck hopped off his stick just before the Coyotes scored their opening tally — but it went from bad to worse after hearing the injury announcement.

The Leafs played the rest of the game down a defenseman and now will await injury news on whether the ailment will cost Muzzin any further time. It does nothing to allay concerns about the aging defenseman’s durability, that’s for sure.

8.     After the Leafs tied the game, my first thought was, “They have to at least get to overtime and get a point out of this one.” Considering how poorly they played for much of the contest, battling back to tie it felt like a win, and getting points was priority #1.

The Maple Leafs continued to generate gobs of shots and chances over the next few minutes, trying to end the game in regulation, but then it all went haywire. Calle Jarnkrök took his second penalty of the game and this one was inexcusable:

With just over two minutes to go in a tied game, in the offensive zone and with the puck nowhere near him, Jarnkrök slashed the stick out of Shayne Gostisbehere’s hands. Yes, Gostisbehere dropped the stick easily to sell the call — no question about it — but that’s called gamesmanship, and it’s something you come to expect in a league like NHL. Jarnkrök made a clear slashing motion and there was zero reason to do it given the circumstances.

The Leafs now needed to kill the minor penalty off in order to grab a point. They couldn’t do it. Mark Giordano failed to clear a puck out, held in at the point, and then play filtered back down low, where Justin Holl collected the puck and attempted to clear. His feeble clearing attempt went off the stick of a Coyote forechecker and was easily collected by Clayton Keller, who teed up Gostisbehere for a bullet that Källgren had little chance at sliding over to his left:

First, I want to compliment Gostisbehere on a terrific game. People often joke that if you want to get traded away from a bad team, have a great game against the Leafs so the rest of the league will notice. Well, that’s what Gostisbehere did tonight with a goal and a primary assist as well as a crucial penalty draw that decided the game. He had a tough end to his time in Philadelphia, but if there is a deadline buyer in search of an offensive defenseman who can still play — especially on the PP — Gostisbehere would be an attractive addition.

As for the goal on the Leafs’ end, there’s not much more you can say other than that they have to get that puck out. Giordano should have and Holl 100% has to. Those were two crucial mistakes that cost the Leafs, and it’s tough for Holl especially, coming off of a great game against Ottawa on Saturday. It’s been a major up-and-down rollercoaster for him this season four games in.

9.     Amazingly, much like the Montreal game, the Leafs seemed totally finished and then battled back to tie it… or so we thought. A tight play at the line (more on that in a second) led to a scramble down low, where John Tavares put the puck on net and Alex Kerfoot cleaned up the rebound for the equalizer with under 40 seconds left.

After a minute of celebration, fans quickly realized that the NHL was poised to review this one based on what transpired at the line. It all came down to this play between Morgan Rielly and Clayton Keller:

There were many moving parts to this — and I don’t want to delve too deeply into the weeds — but Keller’s stick ends up in Rielly’s glove prior to the glove contacting the puck, before the puck drops down and touches Keller’s skate. The NHL ruled that Rielly’s glove touched the puck and did so with the intention of playing the puck to Marner (a bit of a stretch to me), and that when it hit Keller’s skate, it was not enough to say there was a change of possession. Personally, I did not feel there was enough clear evidence to overturn the goal, a sentiment everyone in Scotiabank Arena would agree with.

A belief I’ve come around to recently is that sports leagues should work to help more fun stuff happen and not get repealed by nitpicky calls on the replay. I feel this way about catches in football — the catch rule should be made simpler so that more catches stand rather than calling jaw-dropping diving catches back because a tiny piece of the ball touched the turf.

I feel the same about the NHL and plays like this. In what way does repealing this goal based on a minute detail that happened 10 seconds earlier make the sport better or the product more appealing? Leagues should be working to make more fun stuff happen, and game-tying goals with under 40 seconds to go is objectively fun. Narcing on players for tiny incidents enforceable based on something in fine print on page 683 of the rulebook that no fans caught onto as the game was happening is lame and a disappointing fan experience. It makes the league less marketable. Let fun stuff happen and let the players play!

10.      After the goal was called back, the Leafs could not put another one by Vejmelka before an empty netter by Lawson Crouse wrapped it up 4-2. This game inspired a great amount of hooting from the team’s often-irascible fanbase, and it’s understandable.

Toronto mailed it in for about half the game, got a bit of bad puck luck at the start and a very tough refereeing decision at the end, but they really got the result they deserved. They didn’t play well enough to walk out of the building with two points, although there’s a scenario where that might have happened anyway because the Coyotes are so bereft of talent.

A 2-2 start to the season is a bit disappointing. It is not the end of the world, but the same pattern from last season of failing to show up against bottom-tier teams has continued against Montreal and Arizona just four games in. On the other hand, that was the case last year and the Leafs finished with 115 points, which in most years is enough to win the Presidents’ Trophy. If Toronto racks up 115 points again, I don’t think anyone will be upset. It was simply an odd way to arrive at that point total last year (getting smacked around by Buffalo, going winless against Arizona) — and if that’s the path this year, it is indeed unusual. ‘Tis the world of contradictions with this Leafs’ core.

What miffs me more about this start to the season is the fact that a cleaner final three minutes to games one and four would have the Leafs at six points at least — possibly eight — instead of four. They were tied with a minute to go against Montreal and couldn’t get to OT. They were tied with three minutes to go tonight and couldn’t get to OT. That’s extremely deflating.

All the team had to do was not self-destruct. They showed a  lack of situational awareness against the Habs with Justin Holl pinching at the blue line and throwing a puck into the middle that eventually turned into the winning goal. They did it again tonight when Jarnkrök took the penalty.

The team is not clicking right now on all cylinders, especially with the top line + Morgan Rielly on defense. Of course, they didn’t click out of the gate last season, either (that’s actually a generous description), so it goes to show that it’s still difficult to know anything right now. There is a lot of hockey to be played.

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts