Matthews-less Maple Leafs look clunky against Flames

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The Toronto Maple Leafs’ weak effort in a 3-1 loss to the Calgary Flames wasn’t merely about missing Auston Matthews. It wasn’t even about the Maple Leafs being without Matthews and unsigned winger William Nylander.

Still, there was a brief stretch that might remind you one of the sneaky things that makes the full-strength version of this Leafs team so potent: they boast the offensive talent to essentially outscore their problems on many nights.

After dominating the puck through two scoreless periods, the Flames finally started breaking through in the third. Sean Monahan made it 1-0 5:39 into the final frame, while his linemate Elias Lindholm hammered home a great pass from Johnny Gaudreau to make it 2-0 less than a minute later.

It looked like the Maple Leafs were going to lose the game with a big thud, and honestly, a deserving one.

Yet, during one comically odd and misleading moment, it seemed like the Maple Leafs somehow tied the game.

Let’s set the stage:

As rudderless as the Maple Leafs seemed for most of the contest, Toronto was gifted a pretty lengthy 5-on-3 opportunity late in regulation. Calgary provided some hearty efforts on the PK, but the Maple Leafs finally broke through once Morgan Rielly sent a great pass to Mitch Marner, who set up a Nazem Kadri with an even sweeter feed.

Then, with about 1:30 left, a chance seemingly beat Mike Smith, prompting Zach Hyman and other Leafs to boisterously celebrate, as it looked like Toronto tied things up 2-2 with its net empty.

Nope, the puck actually was stuck in the twine on the outside of the net, creating an optical illusion that tricked the Maple Leafs and thousands of their hometown fans. There was so much confusion that Toronto was lucky enough to see the play whistled dead.

Instead of it being 2-2, Michael Frolik eventually scored an empty-netter to lock things up at 3-1. Perhaps Matthews would have made the difference in Toronto getting that extra push to steal that game, but hockey justice was served: Calgary was way, way better.

It’s just one game, but the clunky work clearly irritated Maple Leafs fans. With Nylander still in limbo and Matthews on the shelf for at least one month, Toronto still has some credible talent – Kadri has proven to be the sort of center you could easily place on the second line, and John Tavares is John Tavares – yet you wonder if more earthbound ammo might leave Mike Babcock that much more trigger-shy.

However you place the blame, the Maple Leafs struggled in transition in this game, and often asked Frederik Andersen to bail his team out a lot like he’d be doing on his old team, the Anaheim Ducks.

Players like Matthews are special (and fun to watch) because they make difficult athletic accomplishments look easy. Chances are, this will be a grind with him on the shelf, and Monday showed that the Maple Leafs have some serious work to do.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.