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Leafs Play Best Game of Season, Lose 3-1 Against LA

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In stark contrast to the usual - winning poorly - the Leafs managed to play very well in a 3-1 loss to the LA Kings. And it's thanks to the team's skill players.

Claus Andersen

Drew Doughty and the LA Kings visited the Phaneuf-free Leafs last night, having just crushed the Montreal Canadiens 6-0, and took another two points from the Flortheast with a 3-1 win over the Buds. Here's your game in four:

The Goals

Drew Doughty scored on the PP when Mark Fraser was fronting the shot. Fraser disengaged from his man in front of the net, leaving Toffoli free to screen Bernier, and failed to get into the shooting lane. Fronting remains stupid, and the Leafs PK continues to falter. It's worth noting that both McClement and Holland put sticks in the D-to-D passing lane without pressuring Doughty, but I'm not sure whether that's the plan, or one of those to forwards also made a mistake. Honestly, this coverage worked so poorly that it's scary to think it may have been a core part of the Leafs' PK strategy.

Cody Franson tied the game during the Leafs 5-on-3 after a nice feed from Kessel. Kessel, Gardiner, and Franson managed to generate some good puck movement that exposed the Kings' 2-high 3v5 setup.

In what would become the game-deciding play, Ranger pinched on a rebound puck, swiped it onto the stick of a King, and was behind Jeff Carter in a 2-on-1. Jeff Carter opted to shoot, and Bernier responded with an odd half-butterfly, VHS, squeeze-your-knees-and-pray plan. It went five-hole, and it wasn't pretty.

Bernier got twitter-blamed for his "turnover" on the insurance goal, but deflecting it into the corner isn't a bad play there. Following that touch, though, every d-zone Leaf heard the puck hit the glass, and instantly forgot the fact that in ice hockey, there's an opposing team. Ranger and Rielly drop down and end up double covering Richards without actually tying up him or the puck, JVR drops his man for a nice little coast-around in front of the crease, and suddenly the puck's up high and Kyle Clifford puts it in the net.

The Team

In these recaps, I often end up talking about the team's poor play in spite of a W, but in last night's game, the team played well and looked good during a loss. Yes, LA was coming off a back to back, but the Leafs were missing their top defenseman and still managed to get more shot attempts than their opponents - that's a good thing.

The biggest reason that the Leafs were hanging with the Kings beyond my expectations, I think, is that Carlyle was playing more of his skill players and less of his "bruisers." The defense was allowed to carry the puck out of the zone and jump into the rush, which, when it happened, seemed far more effective than the forwards dumping the puck over the line and trying to beat Doughty to the corner. Jay McClement was limited to a season-low 8:11, which is more of what you'd expect (hope?) to see from a third/fourth liner, and Holland got 15 minutes of ice time, the majority along two other skilled players in Lupul and Kulemin.

The Players

Kessel was involved in creating so many chances tonight - both as the trigger man and the distributor. He continues to drive offense, and is probably doing so while playing through an injury. It's a great example of the talented forward's leadership, toughness, grit, and all those other "intangibles" that would-be locker room experts say Kessel doesn't have.

Gardiner played 26 minutes of icetime, alongside another young, offensive, rush-first defenseman, with strong competition and good results. I think it'd be interesting to see him paired with Phaneuf for a stretch, to spread out the Leafs' defensive abilities a little more via Gunnarsson-Franson.

Rielly went from "expected healthy scratch" to "about 20 minutes of ice-time," and looked good doing it. He still seems to make the rookie mistakes you might expect - double covering players, not communicating a switch, and in some cases, spreading himself too thin (there was more than one play where he went from "covering the guy in front of the net" to "challenging the puck carrier below the goal line," that could've ended very badly). Kid's got talent, and it will continue to be fun watching him play if he can earn a long, developmental leash.

Above all, though, the most notable player tonight was the well-deserved first star, Kings goalie Martin Jones. He stopped 38 of 39 (EV: 35 of 35), including two great in-the-paint chances from Kulemin and seven shots from JVR. Also on the Kings side, Drew Doughty is really good at ice hockey.

It sucks to take a loss, but the Kings are a really good team and process matters. It's hard not to be happy with last night's play, and it'll be interesting to see what the Leafs look like on the second half of this back-to-back against St. Louis, also without Captain Phaneuf. Oh, and something else to look forwards to: I'm interested in seeing what the Leafs' reactions to this game are like on 24/7. Puck drop for the next game is 8 PM EST.

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