In many ways, Tuesday night’s visit by the Leafs to San Jose reflects Toronto’s progress over the past year; vastly improved from last season, yet still a borderline playoff team, at best.
Frederik Andersen kept the visitors in the game for as long as he could, making several challenging saves, and it appeared that the Maple Leafs would steal at least one point.
But Tomas Hertl took advantage of a late defensive collapse and fired the game-winner with 1:24 left in regulation. A subsequent empty-netter, courtesy of Joe Pavelski, sealed a 3-1 victory for the Sharks.
“I don’t know if that was a turnover as much as we had three people back and they had two and we didn’t sort it out and they shot it in our net,” coach Mike Babcock said to reporters at game’s end. “That part was disappointing when you’re that close.”
While the game wasn’t the 7-0 whitewash that Toronto suffered in their previous visit to SAP Center on January 9, 2016, the Leafs were nevertheless outclassed by the defending Western Conference champions, exemplifying the difference between contenders and pretenders.
Auston Matthews was the only Leaf player to find the back of the net, opening the scoring on a power play with his 31st goal of the season.
Andersen made 13 of his 36 saves of the game in the first period, and was forced to be brilliant on a Leafs penalty kill, most notably with a spectacular stop on Joel Ward.
San Jose got the equalizer at 12:17 of the middle frame as the Toronto defenders were hemmed in their own end, and Brendan Dillon eventually capitalized with his second tally of the year.
The Leafs generated few scoring threats over the final twenty minutes, a span during which they were outshot 15-4, including the Sharks’ two goals to clinch the regulation win.
The game marked the Leafs debut of Brian Boyle, acquired Monday from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“You’ve got to win these road games,” Boyle said to the media “It comes down to who gets the next one at the end, but that was the focus, just trying to do my part to help the team.”
Mitch Marner logged 15:53 of ice time in his return to the lineup after missing five games with an upper body injury.
The Leafs were relatively quiet on trade deadline day, making one transaction. Toronto acquired forward Eric Fehr, defenceman Steven Oleksy and a fourth-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for defenceman Frank Corrado.
Corrado, 23, appeared in two games with the Maple Leafs this season. In 18 games for the Toronto Marlies (AHL), he registered 12 points (one goal, 11 assists) and 14 penalty minutes.