Maple Leafs Make Several Adjustments in Loss to Senators

A flight into town the day of the game, an early goaltending switch and more line adjustments were just some of Sheldon Keefe’s calls in a loss to the Ottawa Senators on Sunday.
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KANATA, Ont. -- The Toronto Maple Leafs tried something new before their 4-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Sunday night.

Instead of flying into the nation's capital immediately after their 5-2 loss at home to the Winnipeg Jets the night before, the Maple Leafs spent the night in their own bed and flew out the morning of the game.

"We looked at the schedule at the start of the season and it's something we wanted to look at for the shorter trips," Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said before the game.

The Leafs could have done this at other points in the season, but preparing to play their fourth game in six nights before a five-day break, they decided to try it out. It didn't matter that the team had lost four of their previous five games in regulation time.

They continue to try things out, looking for any advantage midway through the season.

"I felt fine, really good actually," Mitch Marner said of the travel change. "I think the group was kind of hot and cold about it."

Michael Hutchinson may have been the biggest loser out of the adjustment. The Leafs backup goaltender let in two goals on three shots. Both of them went through his legs, prompting Keefe to immediately yank Hutchinson in favour of starter Frederik Andersen, who played the night before.

The Leafs escaped the first period down just a goal when Zach Hyman poked one through unexpected Sens starter Joey Daccord that made it 2-1 heading into the first intermission.

When Toronto's goaltending wasn't letting them down, turnovers on defense took care of the rest.

In the second period, Drake Batherson scored the first of his two goals on the power play when Jake Muzzin's clearing attempt up the middle of the ice failed to clear the zone. That led to 30 seconds of pressure in Toronto's zone, before Batherson buried a pass from Tim Stutzle into a wide-open net. Less than a minute later, Morgan Rielly's clearing attempt off the glass was stopped on the blueline before Batherson beat Andersen up high.

"You noticed it, you want to clean that up," Leafs defenseman TJ Brodie said. "The frustration builds up and you have to calm it down."

The third period saw the Maple Leafs gradually chip away at the Senators. It started with a line adjustment. Joe Thornton, who started on the team's second line, was moved down to the fourth line. Alex Kerfoot moved up to the second trio to play with William Nylander and John Tavares. Jimmy Vesey moved up from the fourth line to take Kerfoot's role on the wing with Ilya Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall.

Toronto thought they had cut Ottawa's lead down to two goals when Mikheyev beat Daccord at 10:01 of the third period. The Senators challenged the play for goaltender interference with Engvall in the crease around Daccord. The challenge was successful.

Still down 3-1, Keefe pulled Andersen for a 6-on-5 and with 6:35 remaining in regulation. Hyman scored his second goal of the game 45 second later to cut Ottawa's lead to 3-2.

The Leafs put Andersen back in goal until they got back into the offensive zone. But after one shift of three forwards and two defensemen, Toronto shifted to four forwards and one defender, typically seen on the power play. A fifth forward joined Toronto once Andersen made his way to the bench.

The Leafs cut the deficit to 4-3 when Tavares scored his ninth goal of the season with 2:12 remaining, but that was as close as they got to staging a comeback.

"Ottawa was better tonight," Keefe said. "They were better 5-on-5, they were better on special teams and they were better in goal. They deserve the result."

Since sweeping the Edmonton Oilers in a three-game set out west, the Leafs are 1-5-0. They are 19-9-2 with 40 points and still lead the North Division, although the Winnipeg Jets are just four points back with three games in hand.

From holding later practices than usual after their road trip after the team's Western road trip, to flying out the day of the game, to changing goalies after two goals, to pulling the goalie with lots of time in the game, to changing the wingers on your bottom three lines, the one thing that's held constant is Keefe  will continue to make adjustments both on and off the ice.

It didn't matter that the season is half over or if some players may not have been warm to the idea. The Leafs contnue to look for the right balance before the playoffs begin.

In the meantime, despite the recent slide, the rest comes at a time where they need it.

***

Goaltending is of some concern for the Leafs, Hutchinson didn't look good on either goal and Andersen has been underwhelming in his last four starts. Toronto's starter hasn't played poorly but hasn't bailed his team out with a timely save when needed.

The real issue is Jack Campbell's health. Toronto's backup goaltender was supposed to get more looks in goal this season and has played in just three games. His shutout in Edmonton in February raises questions about if the backup goaltender was rushed back too soon from his leg injury.

The positives

Wayne Simmonds could be on track to return following the break. If he gets some solid practices in with the team, his addition should help the team looking for a spark. Activating Simmonds could create a roster crunch. His $1.5 million cap hit means the Leafs may have to find approximately $1 million in space to make him fit. That number increases if Simmonds is ready, but Campbell isn't and they have to carry Hutchinson on the roster.

Of the five losses the Leafs have had in their last six games, only one of them was a stinker. The loss to the Jets on Saturday was the only game where they didn't perform well overall. The other results came out of mistakes on transition and exceptional goaltending at the other end of the ice.

"I think a lot of those nights you win those games and you don't think about it, the media doesn't think about it's nothing it's just a win," Hyman said. "But I think that when you don't win the game and you're out-chancing, your defensive breakdowns get hyper-focused."

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