Someone said, “There are no moral victories in sports.” Or something. I don’t know exactly what morality has to do with it, but the Toronto Maple Leafs played probably their best game of the season last night but still fell to the juggernaut Los Angeles Kings 3-1.
There have been plenty of games this year (the shootout win against the Dallas Stars, for example) where the Leafs won games they had no business winning, so I guess last night can be seen as some kind of karmic retribution. Or maybe hockey is just hockey and weird stuff happens all the time.
As Jonas Siegel wrote in his Leaf Report post for TSN, the Leafs out-shot a team for only the fourth time this season in the Kings game. In fact, it wasn’t really close at all, as the final tally was 35-21 in the Buds’ favour at even-strength. That almost never happens with this team.
If we dig a little deeper into the Extra Skater advanced stats, we find the Leafs actually garnered 59 per cent of unblocked shot attempts during the 43 minutes when the score was close. That’s like “Oh hey check it out Haley’s Comet is flying right over our house” rare for this team.
So there might not be a moral victory in all this, but at least the Leafs can take away a few positives. One positive was the much-improved play of the defense that came, ironically, during the first game of Dion Phaneuf’s suspension.
One of the new defensive pairings that rose to the occasion was Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner. Gardiner played a team-high 26 minutes and had five shots, while Rielly played 19 and had three shots after being a healthy scratch the past three games. If that isn’t a good enough reason for Carlyle to play Rielly every game, then, well, you might as well let him tear apart the world juniors for a few weeks. James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail has more on that exciting pairing right here.
At last, I would be remiss to not mention the stellar play of Phaneuf’s replacement on the top pairing: the mercurial Cody Franson. Franson had his first goal of the season, ripping a slap shot from the bottom of the left faceoff circle after a smart feed by Phil Kessel on a five-on-three power play. Franson played 22 minutes and played well alongside Carl Gunnarsson, making smart, quick plays with the puck in the defensive end.