Maple Leafs look ahead to opportunity for blue line to gain familiarity

TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs blue line regained some familiar faces playing alongside each other on Tuesday night.

Toronto's 6-5 shootout loss to the St. Louis Blues was the first time the team had defencemen Rasmus Sandin, Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie all playing in the same game since Nov. 11.

It was Sandin's first game back from a four-game absence due to a neck injury. For Rielly, it was his third game back from a knee injury that cost him 15 games. Brodie, meanwhile, missed 12 games because of an oblique injury, having come back Dec. 12.

"When guys are healthy, it's good for us," said Leafs forward Michael Bunting. "Moe has been great since he's been back. And Sandy's first game back there, he didn't miss a beat. So, we just got to keep building off that momentum."

Sandin finished with a team-high 5-on-5 shot attempt percentage of 73.91, with 17 shots for and only six against. He had two shots on net and also blocked a shot in 18:40 of ice time.

"I like him, Sandin. He's (a) smart defenceman," said Toronto goaltender Ilya Samsonov, who had 27 saves. "He's moving (the) puck very well.

"I feel confident with every defenceman on the team. These guys block shots every game to help me and Matt (Murray)."

Brodie led the team with four blocked shots in 21:52 of ice time. Rielly led the team with 23:53 of ice time.

Despite the time missed between the three blue liners, the Leafs held up at second in the NHL at just 2.54 goals allowed per game, entering Tuesday.

However, the team has now allowed 20 goals in its last five games but has gone 3-1-1.

"I think it's recalibrated," Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said of his defence. "You can tell, it hasn't played together, it's not in sync — both in the players and the pairings.

"Sandy's coming off a break, most coming off a really long break away from playing. All those kind of things are gonna take a little bit of time to fall in place."

The Leafs came out flat for much of the first period as the Blues played with more of an edge.

Brandon Saad scored his first of the game, a short-handed goal, before Schenn added a power-play marker to give St. Louis a 2-0 lead 13:01 in.

In the second period, Toronto surrendered three goals on 13 shots, with one coming on the power play. The Blues were 2-for-2 with the man advantage on the night.

After a middle frame that saw both sides score three goals apiece and the Leafs down 5-4 entering the third period, their blue line stepped up.

Toronto held St. Louis to just four shots in the third, opening the ice for Bunting's game-tying goal, his second of the game, and allowing the Leafs to force overtime.

Bunting's marker, which came 7:55 into the period, gave Toronto its first tie of the game. The Leafs did not hold a lead at any point.

St. Louis was held without a goal for the final 33:15 of the contest before the shootout.

Sandin had the final shootout attempt with a chance to break a 2-2 tie but after getting Jordan Binnington to bite on a deke, the Blues goaltender managed to get his leg just far out enough to stop Sandin's shot. Schenn scored the winner on the next attempt.

"Every time, you know, (in) real practice … he seems to be the guy that finishes with the greatest level of success," Keefe said about Sandin. "It's why we waited for an opportunity to try to get him involved."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 3, 2022.

Abdulhamid Ibrahim, The Canadian Press