Maple Leafs begin California road trip out on wrong foot

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Jack Campbell did all he could to keep the Leafs in this one. (Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
Jack Campbell did all he could to keep the Leafs in this one. (Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

It’s already become a little uncomfortable, this California road trip.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were relative no-shows in the first stop of the three-game tour of Western Conference bottom feeders, losing 5-2 to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday night.

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Jack Campbell performed admirably in net for the Leafs, making 33 saves, but lacked the insulation required from the total team defensive structure to avoid picking up his first regulation loss since his acquisition from the L.A. Kings.

Auston Matthews scored his 46th goal of the season to continue on the moustache-inspired Road to 50, while Mitch Marner scored a sensational goal for the Leafs in the losing effort as well.

Toronto will clash with the Kings and Anaheim Ducks on a suddenly crucial back-to-back beginning Thursday.

Until then, three points:

Impressive, even in a loss

It’s been widely established, or at least generally accepted, that Campbell is indeed the backup netminder the Maple Leafs have been sorely missing. Even in a loss it seems he was able to drive that message home.

Campbell accomplished perhaps the extent of which you can ask of a player in his position against the Sharks, which is to give his team a chance to win a game they simply do not belong in. He did that and more in the second period alone, helping the Leafs win a middle frame in which they allowed 18 shots on over 30 attempts and countered with only three even-strength shots themselves.

He wound up allowing four goals in the game, including three that he would probably like to have back. He predictably took ownership for the loss. But Campbell’s plus saves severely outweighed his mistakes in the game, and he was able to withstand more than most No. 1 netminders could while under siege in the second period. It’s just the structure that has so often failed Frederik Andersen this season was never able to find its shape.

That bottom six

It’s time to go back to the lab.

While it’s remained largely unchanged over the past few games and the results turned out fine, it does appear obvious that Sheldon Keefe is falling short in terms of optimization with his forward lines.

While heavily concentrating his top six with the most talented players remaining on the roster would not be considered a faux pas, in this case with the Leafs it’s left a weird, ultimately ineffective bottom-six combination.

It’s not hard to see why the third unit is intriguing, and might very well possess potential. Together Jason Spezza, Kasperi Kapanen and Kyle Clifford have some plus offensive skill, and between them host pretty much the extent of the team’s toughness.

What these three really have in common, though, seems to be their ability to provide a spark. Whether it’s Kapanen’s speed, Spezza’s offensive acumen, or Clifford’s physicality, all three can make a difference in the game, but haven’t while together. The problem is that it just doesn’t seem like there’s a connectivity to their games or individual skillsets, and each are suffering for it.

It’s the fourth unit, however, that really seems disjointed. Pierre Engvall and Denis Malgin have to play with more talented offensive players to demonstrate their own facilitative skills, while in turn Frederik Gauthier would have a better chance to be effective on the forecheck with someone on his wing to crash and bang.

As long as Andreas Johnsson and Ilya Mikheyev are out of the lineup, the solution to this might be to drop Alexander Kerfoot back down to the third-line centre position and have him play between Engvall and Kapanen. That would leave Gauthier, Spezza and Clifford in a more traditional fourth-line function, while giving Malgin a chance to be effective on the second line with John Tavares and William Nylander.

Or they could eliminate Malgin from the equation entirely and go back to the 11-forward, seven-defender configuration that Keefe used to beat the Florida Panthers last week.

He was due

Yes, Mitch Marner is scoring at over a point per game and could very well wind up with a better scoring rate this season than the one that helped him negotiate an eight-figure salary. But the eye-popping moments we have come to expect from the talented forward seem to be in short supply. At least they have been lately.

That’s why it was worth savouring the most-special goal he scored in the second period in San Jose with a backhand toe drag-style move put through his own legs to beat Martin Jones.

That is truly breath-taking from Marner, and something Leafs fans certainly want to see more of.

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