London celebrations

Weak goals, not the Maple Leafs’ worst enemy in Heritage Classic

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HAMILTON — Petr Mrazek might wish it was the wind that blew him out of his post.

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Maybe it was rogue snowflakes that clouded the eyes of Toronto shooters on 34 of 36 shots. Or Auston Matthews was just trying to keep his hands warm by performing some upper body cross-checks on Rasmus Dahlin that ultimately landed him a hearing Monday with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

Ultimately, the natural elements of the Heritage Classic had less to do with the Maple Leafs’ 5-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabers than with their own duds at The Hammer in front of 26,119 mostly Toronto fans. Inside or away, the Leafs can’t keep beatable teams away, now 2-4 against non-playoff clubs, while a deadly combo of odd goals against continues to morph.

Two of those losses have come against Buffalo, which started the month on a six-game losing streak and now has 10 goals past the Leafs, including an empty goal on Sunday.

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“There’s no off night in this league,” defender and substitute Morgan Rielly said of the record. “Teams are hungry, guys are playing for contracts.

“We talk about all the good things in the room before the game, whether it’s this one or against those guys two weeks ago, or Arizona or Seattle. But the teams come out and play us hard and it’s up to us to answer.

“I don’t think it’s a problem for us in the long term, but right now it’s hard to luge.”

Maple Leafs' TJ Brodie gets tangled up with Buffalo Sabers' Cody Eakin during the second period at Hamilton.  CLAUS ANDERSEN/GETTY IMAGES
Maple Leafs’ TJ Brodie gets tangled up with Buffalo Sabers’ Cody Eakin during the second period at Hamilton. CLAUS ANDERSEN/GETTY IMAGES

In the Leafs’ tortured 50-year history of road losses to the Sabers, this one is sure to linger. They arrived in Buffalo by bus, took a short plane trip, arrived two days early, at the last minute, and skated here and there in the morning. But it’s added up to 33-67-12.

It was a new place, without a roof, and the promise of redemption. Instead, Mrazek took his place among those many unfortunate goalkeepers, despite making 33 saves.

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“The third goal didn’t go well,” he said of Vinnie Hinostroza’s second strike which found a hole between his arm and the near post. “He put it on and he squeezed my arm. I was too high and fell while he was shooting.

On the fourth, also the second of the night for Peyton Krebs, he snuck out the back door and beat Mrazek as he knocked down his own net. Surprised that it shook so easily, Mrazek and coach Sheldon Keefe argued heatedly to no avail.

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“I read the game really well, I knew he was coming in the middle and you’re trying to push,” Mrazek said. “I think it was clear that I pushed while the puck was still behind the net.”

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Those bad goals came after Hinostroza conceded a puck behind TJ Brodie’s net. Minutes earlier, the Leafs defenseman scored his 300th NHL point on Matthews’ 45th goal. Combined with Ondrej Kase, he provided a 2-1 lead. But they couldn’t take over.

“We had some momentum, but their second on our foot was a tough rebound and we didn’t have enough attack to catch it,” Keefe said.

The teams switched ends midway through the third period to even out the gusty conditions.

“It took some tweaking for sure,” Keefe said of the weather model. “But as the game went on it calmed down, the snow stopped.”

Mrazek made 13 first-half saves and didn’t come under too much criticism from Keefe, but the debate over whether to start rookie Erik Kallgren on Tuesday against Dallas, or think outside the box for help via the trade, will intensify.

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Just after Matthews was foiled in his wheelhouse by Craig Anderson’s glove, John Tavares controlled a draw to William Nylander which Kase tapped on the line. Buffalo got that right back when Timothy Liljegren jumped off the bench and lost the puck, which Krebs converted. As Rasmus Sandin returned to the Toronto roster, Liljegren had a rough day with partner Justin Holl.

After Alex Kerfoot fed Matthews on the cross ice as he departed, the first snapped it with arms raised in celebration for the entire main stand.

“It’s a bit sad for us (today),” Kase said. “Because the atmosphere was pretty good.”

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