One-line Maple Leafs drop sixth straight while searching for winning formula

Despite cleaning up many of the defensive issues that plagued them Saturday in their embarrassing loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Toronto Maple Leafs remained without a winning formula for a sixth consecutive outing, losing 4-2 to the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday night.

The Maple Leafs submitted a decent effort in desperation down the stretch, but the same factors ultimately led to their undoing in Vegas. They fell behind, again, couldn’t kill penalties, again, and made costly errors while pressing for an equalizer, yet again.

Toronto’s next chance to return to winning ways will come Thursday in Auston Matthews’ home state versus the Coyotes.

Until then, three points:

A one-line team

Even despite injuries to three significant middle-six pieces, this was supposed to be a team that carried with it enough firepower to withstand absences, even to those key to the offensive equation.

But since Mitch Marner went out with injury, the Leafs have devolved into a one-line team from an offensive standpoint. And as the Auston Matthews-William Nylander partnership has gone cold over the last few games, the team has suffered for it.

At even strength, Zach Hyman and Ilya Mikheyev (two not at all known for their finishing ability) were the lone Leafs to take multiple meaningful attempts at goal outside the Matthews-Nylander combination versus Vegas. Setting aside the throwback moment for Jason Spezza for one second, essentially every remaining forward was a non-factor from an offensive standpoint until the Golden Knights conceded two late opportunities on the power play.

There are quite a few players that have to shoulder responsibility for that outage, but none more than John Tavares.

The Leafs captain has anchored what’s been a largely non-effective second line from the outset of the season, but since Marner has exited the lineup, Tavares’s threat level has just plummeted. He has barely registered in terms of expected individual goals across roughly 75 minutes at five-on-five, counting just eight mostly inconsequential shots.

Tavares has scored on the power play while trailing late in Chicago and in garbage time with the man advantage versus the Islanders, but this is a player that must start contributing when it matters for the Leafs to be more than just a single-threat entity.

And at the very least in the absence of meaningful production, Tavares cannot be taking the sort of penalty he did late in the game, which led to the killer Mark Stone power-play goal.

No argument for Shore over Spezza

If there’s any benefit to the string of injures the Leafs have suffered in recent weeks, perhaps it’s that it prevented the organization from making a mistake on Jason Spezza.

With his time apparently running out despite showing nothing but a commitment to a reduced role under Mike Babcock, Spezza has received new life, and with it proved his worth to the club.

Against the Golden Knights alone, Spezza showed more than Nick Shore, his direct competition for the fourth-line centre role, has all season.

Spezza brought the Maple Leafs level with a world-class finish on Marc-Andre Fleury in the third period, unfortunately only to see the marker erased 42 seconds later after an egregious Tyson Barrie turnover.

Later, Spezza played the primary role in bringing the Leafs back to within one when he rung one off the post for Hyman to tuck home on the rebound with some power-play scraps late in the game.

Contributing the lone goal in the loss to the Penguins as well, Spezza has basically created the last three goals for Toronto.

Shore has two points for the whole year.

Fourth-line mismatches

Mike Babcock is often derided for his use of the fourth line in key moments. (They were out there again as the Leafs pressed in the final few shifts for an equalizer).

So it was at least noteworthy to see his counterpart Gerard Gallant use a similar strategy, and actually have it pay off.

In the second, Vegas’s third line trapped Babcock’s fourth unit with an extended offensive zone shift, and maintained possession long enough to trigger a line change. Normally, coaches use this opportunity to create considerable mismatches, but in this case Gallant sent his fourth line — and in particular Ryan Reaves — into the zone to try to make something happen.

Just like that, within moments, Reaves had hit the post and drawn a penalty during a net-front scramble.

While it wasn’t Reaves who ultimately cashed, the Golden Knights converted on the penalty the enforcer was able to draw against taxed competition, and took a 1-0 advantage into the dressing room in large part due to Gallant’s decision.

Though he would probably be better served in most cases to throw the No. 1 line onto the ice in that moment, the Vegas coach has Babcock-level faith in that unit.

Though unlike Babcock, he actually has a meaningful reason to trust so much in those depth forwards.

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