TORONTO – Randy Carlyle knows all about the “Nashville Predator way,” and he figured his Toronto Maple Leafs would have to outwork their opponent Thursday night.
That didn’t happen. The Predators were zoned in on their workmanlike style, the Leafs played a mistake-prone game and the result was a 4-2 loss at Air Canada Centre.
“We just didn’t play well enough,” captain Dion Phaneuf said. “I don’t think you can say much more than that. We didn’t do enough of the little things against a team that always comes hard. They play very disciplined to their system, they have for a long time, and we just weren’t good enough.”
Not good enough to the tune of blowing an early lead with a couple of ill-timed penalties and some spotty defence around the net. After Peter Holland scored his first goal with the Leafs 5:48 in, it seemed like the whole team went into cruise control.
Carlyle saw things change at the first intermission.
“We were flat after the first period. We didn’t seem to have any energy, we didn’t seem to have any enthusiasm,” he said. “It just seemed like the game turned, and then we couldn’t get it back.”
That’s because the Predators (11-9-2) pounced on mistakes. When Toronto winger Mason Raymond high-sticked David Legwand, rookie defenceman Seth Jones scored on the power play off Jay McClement’s stick.
Sleepy defence put the Leafs behind at 11:14 of the second. Matt Cullen, who finished with a game-high four points, whiffed on his original attempt but had no trouble recovering the puck and scoring while Paul Ranger and the Leafs stood around watching.
It got worse before it got better for Toronto when Craig Smith scored the first of his two goals with James van Riemsdyk in the penalty box for boarding. Add it up and it was a 4-1 lead for the Predators.
“Second period I thought we locked down our structure, got on to our game plan a little bit better,” Predators coach Barry Trotz said. “I think we were watching Toronto a little bit. … We created some penalties and our power play was real huge for us today and I thought we locked down the game pretty good.”
It was a period the Leafs (13-8-1) would love to forget.
“I think we just got away from our game plan a little bit, got off the forecheck,” Holland said. “We weren’t going in on them as hard, we were letting their skilled guys make plays and they capitalized on the power play as well. Unfortunately there’s breaks in the game and they seemed to capitalize on them.”
The breaks kept going against the Leafs, but most of that was self-inflicted. Goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who was dominant in nine previous starts against the Predators, gave up a soft goal in the third to Smith when the puck nicked his glove and bounced over him and into the net.
Bernier finished with 24 saves on 28 shots.
Nazem Kadri scored late in the third in his return from a three-game suspension for elbowing Minnesota Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom in the head to provide a brief burst of energy and bring the crowd of 19,256 to life. The Leafs were buzzing with an extra attacker, Holland even hit the cross bar and the post, but it wasn’t enough to beat Marek Mazanec, who finished with 24 saves.
“We had some chances, so you’re never out of it,” Carlyle said. “We had some enthusiasm going, but we hit a cross bar, post, and that was it.”
The Leafs looked out of it for much of the night because the Predators were living up to their reputation as a hard-working, difficult team to play against. Once they built a lead, the task of skating against that tide became even tougher.
“They make you earn what you get,” Leafs defenceman Cody Franson said. “They don’t take a lot of chances, they pick their spots and if they get one, they play very tight.”
Trotz said just getting the first goal was enough to create some momentum. Nashville had killed off two penalties in the first period and got a spark when Jones scored his third of the season 2:01 into the second.
“It was a good play on the power play,” Jones said. “We worked around pretty well all night. I kind of got it started there. It wasn’t a very hard shot but it found a way to get in.”
At the core, Franson said the Predators scoring twice on the power play and the Leafs coming up empty on their two chances was the difference. Of course there was more to it.
“It’s not like our power play wasn’t generating anything. We just couldn’t put it in the back of the net,” Franson said. “They play a tight defensive game and it’s tough to create stuff against a team that plays that tight.”
When the Leafs struggled to create a lot, they turned the puck over and stunted their own efforts.
“When we were pressing, it seemed like we started to play like individuals in the third period,” Carlyle said. “That’s a natural state that athletes go to is they’re trying to take the responsibility and say, ‘Well, I’m going to be the guy that makes the difference,’ and then it just compounds, compounds and it gets worse versus getting better.”
Leafs star Phil Kessel is often counted on to be the difference-maker, but he took only five shifts in the second and six in the third for a total ice time of 15:27. Carlyle juggled his lines in the third period, promoting Colton Orr to play alongside Kadri and Raymond, while Kessel was a non-factor.
Carlyle deflected when asked if Kessel was playing banged-up.
“I don’t know. I think all our players have bumps and bruises,” he said. “They all have their ailments. That’s why we have maintenance days, that’s why we have physiotherapists, that’s why we have massage therapists, that’s why they have all that stuff to try and keep these guys at the peak of their physical (condition) and feeling well, and it’s difficult when some situations the bumps and bruises do pile up.”
NOTES—Leafs centre Tyler Bozak missed his 11th straight game with a hamstring injury. He could return as soon as Saturday night against the Washington Capitals. … Ten of the Predators’ 12 points came from U.S.-born players. General manager David Poile is the general manager of the U.S. Olympic team.