Maple Leafs hand back progress made toward postseason with disaster trip through California

Picking up just a single point across their two previous games leading up to the final stop on the trip, the California swing was either going to be labelled a disappointment or a disaster for the Toronto Maple Leafs based on the result Friday night in Anaheim.

It wound up being the latter.

The Maple Leafs fell 2-1 to the Anaheim Ducks, and with it gave back a large percentage of the progress they made toward the postseason before heading out for the last favourable portion of the season schedule.

William Nylander remained the Leafs’ best player after playing a starring role one night earlier in Los Angeles, hitting the 30-goal benchmark for the first time. Meanwhile, Jack Campbell once again impressed in the loss, making 26 saves.

Toronto will return home before hosting the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday.

Until then, two points (in an inappropriate order):

The positives

Nylander and the netminders.

That’s really the extent of it when listing those that showed up in California.

It could be just the backdrop of so much mediocrity surrounding him that has led me to this determination, but it’s possible that in this reclamation season Nylander might be only now coming off his best two-game stretch.

He was absolute force in Los Angeles, having a meaningful impact on nearly every shift. Despite seeming to work harder than just about anyone else one night earlier, his legs were preserved in the second half of the back-to-back.

He remained the team’s most dangerous forward, and went out and earned every bit of his 30th goal of the season.

If the silky between-the-legs finish last week on Andrei Vasilevsky was his best of the season to that point, I’d argue that Nylander surpassed it with this tremendous blend of hard work and high skill.

Meanwhile, the most significant storyline heading into the trip was the goaltending, and more specifically how Sheldon Keefe planned to chart out the course with Frederik Andersen and Jack Campbell.

To the surprise of many, Keefe chiseled out two starts for the backup, in turn affording his No. 1 netminder some much-needed rest and an ideal scenario leading into his only start on the trip.

While the results weren’t there, the process was spot-on. Going Campbell, Andersen, then Campbell again, the Leafs’ tandem delivered quality starts in every rink they visited in California, and both their netminders should feel good about where their games are heading home.

There is not much to grasp at when looking for positives from thee trip, but the play of Nylander and the form shown by both goalies are certainly chief among them.

The negatives

Where to start?

Despite scoring at per-game rate that compares to the very best teams in league, the Leafs were stifled by a no-name defensive unit in consecutive nights. A large part of that is due to the diminishing returns on a power play that has failed to convert on its last 14 opportunities, but the scoring woes extend to every inch and every corner of the lineup.

Pierre Engvall is mired in a massive scoring drought. It seems like Alexander Kerfoot hasn’t scored in forever. There is nothing coming from the blue line (beyond Martin Marincin). For these reasons and more, there is so much pressure on the top guys to score, because the expectation is that nothing will come from the depths of the lineup.

All this pressure might be heaviest on the shoulders of Mitch Marner, who apparently suggested after the game that it would be wise for players to stay off social media. He has just 10 even-strength goals in 57 games, and just six total in 29 games since the calendar flipped to 2020.

Then it’s obviously worth mentioning the state of the Leafs defense corps. So desperate for a body with Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren now struggling to prove they can hang at this level, there were actual exhales with Cody Ceci returning to the lineup.

While Ceci, like everyone else, deserves some time to get up to game speed, it seems that within an instant that he was back to mis-diagnosing his coverages in front of the net, watching as Carter Rowney flipped a puck into an empty side of the net.

That meaningful bump to the back end could be just around the corner, with Morgan Rielly apparently on track to return this upcoming week.

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