OTTAWA — With the playoffs just over a week away, the Toronto Maple Leafs know they’re running out of time to clean up their game.
The Leafs missed a chance to clinch a playoff spot after falling 4-2 to the last-place Ottawa Senators on Saturday night. It was Toronto’s second loss in the nation’s capital in two weeks and continued a run of inconsistency for the club.
“I thought we had lots of looks, lots of opportunities and did lots of good things,” said Toronto’s Mike Babcock. “In the end, we didn’t finish around their net enough.”
The Senators’ game operations staff appeared to troll their provincial rivals in the final minute, playing the Leafs’ goal song — “You Make My Dreams” by Hall & Oates — as Ottawa put the final touches on a victory.
The Leafs did get a key player back as defenceman Travis Dermott returned to the Toronto lineup after missing 14 games with a shoulder injury.
But the Leafs fell to 3-5-2 in their past 10 games as Senators goalie Craig Anderson made 42 saves.
“It was a tight hockey game, obviously,” said Leafs centre John Tavares. “We were doing a pretty good job generating chances, getting a lot of pucks to the net, but giving too much time and space and we just can’t give up the opportunities, especially to the middle of the ice to make it tough on our goaltenders. It’s hard to explain, but it’s just the attention to detail each and every shift.”
Despite the loss, Dermott was happy to start working out the kinks before the playoffs. He played 17 minutes 43 seconds.
“Yeah, tough outcome, but I feel like it was a good stepping stone for me, feeling comfortable and getting back.” he said. “I think (defence partner Martin Marincin) and I had a really good first period and then a couple breakdowns later on that they capitalized on. I think a lot to be happy about, especially early on, that I can move forward with.”
Anthony Duclair, with two goals, Magnus Paajarvi and Cody Ceci scored for the Senators (28-44-6).
Auston Matthews and Connor Brown scored for the Leafs (45-26-7). Backup goalie Garret Sparks stopped 18 shots.
Sparks, who also took the loss two weeks ago, appeared dejected and took the brunt of the responsibility for the loss.
“I just have to make more saves,” said Sparks. “We come roaring back to tie the game, it would have been a huge save to make on the third (goal) and obviously the first two weren’t great either.”
The Canadian Tire Centre, as usual, was filled with a large contingent of Toronto fans. They didn’t have much to cheer about until the third period — and only for a short time.
Trailing 2-0, Toronto was finally able to get on the board with a power-play goal early in the third as Matthews beat Anderson high glove side.
Just 27 seconds later, the Leafs tied the game as the Senators had a bad turnover in their own end, which resulted in an odd-man rush and Brown picking the top corner to beat Anderson.
The Senators managed to respond quickly, though, and regained the lead less than two minutes later as Ceci tucked a shot just under the crossbar.
“It was a guy walking down the middle, good shot,” admitted Sparks. “I’ve got to get out more. I’ve got to wear that, find a way to get a piece of it and make a save for the team because they were playing so well.”
Shortly after that goal, Anderson made a huge save on Mitch Marner to preserve the lead.
“The save that he made when we took the lead was extraordinary,” said Senators interim head coach Marc Crawford. “He seemed to do everything. They outshot us and had a lot of quality chances, but Craig stood tall all night. He did everything and more that you could ask.”
Duclair added insurance with an empty-net goal.
“I thought we responded in the right way (after the Leafs tied it),” said Anderson. “We didn’t get down on ourselves. I think we knew that we made a mistake and gave up an odd-man rush, but the very next shift we got back to basics and got back to what was giving us some success and making it difficult for them.”
Ottawa opened the scoring at the five-minute mark of the second as Duclair took a pass from Oscar Lindberg and rifled a shot past Sparks.
“I’m proud of the way we handled ourselves,” said Duclair. “It was one of those games that you’re motivated to play in with a building packed with Leafs fans.”
The Senators were fortunate to escape the first period with the game scoreless as the Leafs outshot Ottawa 18-7.
NOTES: Forward Zack Smith returned to the Senators lineup after missing three games with a back injury. Ottawa was without defenceman Mark Borowiecki as he’s dealing with an upper body injury. Winger Mikkel Boedker was a healthy scratch for the Senators. … Winger Patrick Marleau moved into fifth all-time in games played at 1,653, overtaking Mark Recchi.
Lisa Wallace, The Canadian Press