Bubble players fail to impress in Leafs’ blowout loss to Montreal

Roster spots still available with three preseason games remaining

TORONTO – While not the proper preview for the regular season opener Maple Leafs fans would’ve preferred, Monday’s night’s 5-1 preseason home loss against the Montreal Canadiens was an important showcase for players battling to be on the roster.

Unfortunately for head coach Mike Babcock, good impressions were hard to come by in his team’s first loss of exhibition.

“What I wanted to see, I didn’t see any of it,” said Babcock, afterwards. “You’re hoping someone grabs a hold of something and makes it so obvious you don’t have any decisions to make.

“Tonight, you never saw nothing. The puck just went in our net and the game was over.”

Garret Sparks played all three periods in goal, hoping to edge out incumbent Curtis McElhinney for backup duties behind starter Frederik Andersen. Sparks followed up a difficult showing against Buffalo last Friday in which he allowed three goals on twelve shots by giving up five goals on thirty-six shots.

Both goals from Montreal defenceman Xavier Ouellet came through heavy traffic in front, including the game’s second marker that was challenged for goaltender interference but not overturned.

“Maybe I need to get a little bit stronger and clear some space out for myself,” said Sparks. “The physicality of the game is something I’m going to have to get used to at this level.”

The roster spot most up-for-grabs is the Leafs’ sixth defenceman. Bubble guys such as Justin Holl, Connor Carrick, Andreas Borgman, and Martin Marincin were trying to prove to Babcock they could be trusted to skate alongside Travis Dermott on the team’s third pairing.

Holl made the first critical mistake of the game, making an errant outlet pass that was intercepted by Montreal’s third overall draft pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

The young Finnish centre’s shot deflected right to Artturi Lehkonen, who potted the game’s opening goal. Defensive zone turnovers are no way to impress a coaching staff, and the 26-year old career AHLer can ill afford to make any more mistakes if he wants to crack the Leafs’ roster.

Another player vying for the final spot on defence is the second-year Swedish import Borgman. He was burned by Charles Hudon for Montreal’s fourth goal of the game, taking a poor angle on Hudon coming down the right wing and getting beaten to inside as he rushed to get back in position.

Combine that mistake with an undisciplined tripping penalty in the third period and an unsightly minus-4 rating on the night, and Borgman faces a steep uphill battle to crack the roster with just three preseason games remaining.

The veteran Marincin played the kind of positionally sound but otherwise underwhelming game that’s kept him as an NHL-AHL tweener for most of his career.

He may serve a similar role this year, logging most of his minutes for the Toronto Marlies while getting occasional spells for the big club.

The Leafs’ best defender on the night was probably Carrick. Despite taking a third period interference penalty, he looked confident carrying the puck and made no glaring errors.

He and his partner, Marincin, were the only Toronto defencemen to carry a positive plus-minus, as all the Montreal offence came when they weren’t on the ice. With over a hundred games of NHL experience, Carrick is the odds-on favourite to win the final spot on defence.

His sturdy performance relative to his fellow defenceman Monday should help extend his lead over the rest of the pack.

The most dangerous Toronto forward unit was the likely regular season fourth line of Par Lindholm, flanked by speedsters Kasperi Kapanen, and Andreas Johnsson.  Kapanen, who scored Toronto’s lone goal, believes this group can get a lot better than what it’s already shown.

“We have three really good players on that line,” said the Finnish winger after the game. “I just feel we’re not at our full potential right now.”

The Leafs and Canadiens will play the second half of a home-and-home Wednesday night in Montreal.

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Posted: Sep 25 2018 11:34 am
Filed under: Hockey Sports Toronto Maple Leafs