Team defence, scoring depth emerges as bigger problems for Maple Leafs

Fourth straight loss highlights more woes than team toughness as Toronto kicks off five straight home games

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Before they talk any more about dispensing street justice, the Maple Leafs should clean up their own backyard.

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They now have a four-game losing streak to ponder along with weak depth scoring, struggling newcomers, injuries on defence and this week’s latest public/internal debate, lack of response to opposition skullduggery.

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Saturday’s 6-4 home defeat to Buffalo, which had played and lost the night before, underlined more urgent problems than whether Brad Marchand deserved to be slapped around sending Timothy Liljegren to injured reserve.

Toronto’s slump, its longest since last October when they were swept on a Western U.S. road trip, was an ominous beginning to five straight at Scotiabank Arena that precedes their trip to Sweden.

They wasted Auston Matthews’s third hat trick of the season, while giving up groaners on the power play, short-handed and four times in total surrendered goals a few minutes or even a few seconds after striking themselves.

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“After you score, you have to lock it down and really bring it,” sighed defenceman Mark Giordano. “We couldn’t do that tonight.”

Two of their four losses have been to Atlantic rivals with Tampa Bay here next on Monday.

“Everyone in our division is playing well, it’s a battle every night,” Giordano said. “These (losses) sting.”

That Matthews would get the 10th three-goal game of his career and not come out for a three-star bow was indicative of the gloom in the Leafs room.

“It’s pretty early … we just haven’t played a complete team game, rolling all four lines and making it really different on the opposing team,” he said.

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Coach Sheldon Keefe had been perturbed by the criticism of team toughness after the Boston game and had spent the post-game and Saturday morning trying to get their mental toughness straightened away. But he’s finding it harder to kick start unproductive new forwards Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi, while at the same time fixing leaks in the neutral and defensive zones.

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After injuries took out Jake McCabe and Liljegren at various stages of recent games, he played call-up Maxime Lajoie less than five minutes, admitting afterwards he’d never seen his starting blue line so out of gas.

“To me there were two different stories in the game. In the first and second periods we made mistakes (Buffalo) countered on, which is something they do probably better than any team in the NHL.

“The third period was the most exhausted I’ve seen a corps of defencemen in my time in this league. We couldn’t get going, couldn’t make a pass.”

The goals that Toronto worked hard for, Mitch Marner had the only other besides Matthews, were undermined by letting down their guard. Marner called his power play fumble to Tage Thompson in mid ice “a s**t show”, while Keefe pointed to “happen-stance” on at least two Buffalo goals.

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He meant the weird bounces, including Alex Tuch’s winner that struck him from a Rasmus Dahlin point shot as he crossed in front of Joseph Woll.

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The rookie goaltender who has given up 12 goals in three home defeats, stopped J.J. Peterka on a third-period breakaway just before Tuch’s fortunate deflection. Ryan Reaves, under fire for not doing more in Boston and being exposed defensively, happened to be on the ice for that, too.

In every SBA game so far, the Leafs have surrendered at least four goals.

After the tepid response to Marchand’s can opener stick work in Boston, no band of brothers’ opportunity presented itself for the Leafs as they try and find the elusive chemistry to spread scoring beyond Matthews, Marner and William Nylander. Still MIA are Bertuzzi, Domi and John Klingberg and even young Matthew Knies is looking frustrated.

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A bright spot was a 5-on-3 survival for 1:34 with top penalty killers Marner and David Kampf in the box, while Nylander did extend his team record for points in consecutive games to start a season to 11 with an assist.

Matthews reached his 80th power-play goal to move ahead of Wendel Clark for fourth in that career category, while Marner’s goal was his 564th point to pass Bob Pulford for eighth in franchise history.

“I felt like we beat ourselves,” Giordano said. “Pretty disappointing. We have to find a way to keep pucks out of our net. You give up five or six a night, you’re going to lose most games.”

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