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Loss to Habs reminds Maple Leafs they’re still a work in progress

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews (34) dives to get to the puck as Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher (11) looks on at the Air Canada Centre on Feb. 25, 2017.

John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports

As the Toronto Maple Leafs set off on a California road trip this week, still smarting from an overtime loss to their biggest rival in their biggest game in a long time, they must remember they are still a developing team.

In other words, remember how far they were out of the NHL playoff race over the past three years and how far they came this season, not how frustrating it was to lose 3-2 in overtime on Saturday night to the Montreal Canadiens. The point from the overtime loss gave the Leafs 69 points, which equalled their total for all of last season when they finished last over all.

Don't even think about four losses in four games this season to the Canadiens, who were ripe for the picking given their struggles going into the game, or that the Leafs have not won a game against the Habs since Jan. 18, 2014. Or even that it marked the 13th overtime loss for the Leafs this season.

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No, the Leafs gave it a good try in a highly entertaining game, but they wound up losing because they are still a work in progress. And all concerned need to keep that in mind now that the stretch drive of the regular season is upon us.

The Leafs came close but ultimately were not able to take advantage of the Canadiens' trouble scoring goals. A recent spate of injuries exposed the same problem with Toronto because of a lack of depth, especially at centre.

Thanks to a cut on Tyler Bozak's hand that became infected, the Leafs had to play against the best goaltender in the world when two of their centres were Ben Smith and Frederik Gauthier.

Smith lost his spot as the fourth-line centre last week to Gauthier because not even his biggest champion on the team, head coach Mike Babcock, could overlook how poorly he was playing. But then Bozak was a late scratch and now Smith was back in the lineup but bumped all the way up to the No. 3 spot between wingers James van Riemsdyk and Connor Brown.

On top of that, Brown was playing out of his regular slot thanks to Mitch Marner's shoulder injury and the line was still trying to jell. Van Riemsdyk was in a 10-game scoring drought that grew to 11 after Saturday's game.

"I think we have good depth in lots of spots, not as much at centre ice as we'd like to have," Babcock said after the game.

So the Leafs had to try to beat Canadiens goaltender Carey Price with one hand tied behind their backs. Then, despite his recent up-and-down play, Price put on one of his best-in-the-world performances.

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Placed in that context, missing a chance to get one point behind the Canadiens for the Atlantic Division lead with one game in hand is not a disaster. In fact, there are still some bright spots for the Leafs even if this is as close as they get to the division lead this season.

First, Auston Matthews almost single-handedly made up for their lack of depth at centre. The rookie centre scored both goals to hit 30 for the season and almost won the game in overtime on a breakaway. But since Price was having an all-world game Matthews's shot hit the shaft of Price's stick and bounced away from the net.

Then Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen, who played almost as well as Price, misjudged a loose puck and Andrew Shaw scored the overtime winner for the Canadiens. But the fact is Andersen engaged in consecutive goal-tending duels with Price and someone else of some renown, Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, and acquitted himself admirably. Having Andersen back on the beam for the stretch drive provides hope for the Leafs' postseason aspirations.

But the fourth loss to the Canadiens and the three-year hex they hold over the Leafs still hurts.

"Yeah, obviously for us and the fans it's a team we want to beat pretty badly," Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner said. "It's not something to be proud of, that's for sure."

The Leafs face three difficult road games this week against the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks. But they should get some relief on the depth front as long as they can go back to the charmed life they had with injuries until mid-January. Babcock implied Bozak should be ready for Tuesday's game in San Jose and Marner could come back as well.

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"[Bozak's cut] should be cleaned up," Babcock said. "That just happened. We were even hoping on [Saturday] so that shouldn't be an issue. You've got to give our trainers credit. Both Mitch [Marner] and I were [lobbying for him to play Saturday] but they held strong. I think they're going to let him out of jail pretty soon."

By the way, don't look for the Leafs to try for a permanent solution to their woes at centre by Wednesday's trade deadline. At this stage, giving up assets to try for this season's playoffs makes no sense. There may be a cheap deal for a depth centre but that's about it.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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