Maple Leafs take desperate measures only to suffer from Spezza's mistake

You’d laugh, had the cost not been so severe.

It was one fluke occurrence — and a situation that no amount of experience could prepare Jason Spezza for — but it was all the difference on Wednesday night for Nazem Kadri’s Colorado Avalanche, who sent the Toronto Maple Leafs tumbling down into 24th position in the points percentage standings with a 3-1 win at Scotiabank Arena.

Surprising? Look no further than Toronto’s record on the second night of back-to-backs, which is now 1-5-1 after yet another disappointing result on tired legs.

Up next, the Maple Leafs will travel to St. Louis for a meeting with the Stanley Cup champion Blues — a matchup deserving of the marquee Hockey Night and Canada billing — before continuing on west to meet the NHL’s three Western Canadian outfits next week.

Until then, four points.

Sorry, what?

As teased in the prelude to Points, something that Jason Spezza potentially has never even seen in over two decades of highly-competitive hockey seemed to squash any hope of a victory.

After snapping his stick on surely his best opportunity of the game and a rare power play for the Leafs, Spezza started making his way back to the bench to either retrieve another stick or complete a change.

But when heard cries from the bench that the puck was heading in his direction, Spezza instead made an effort to hold the puck inside the blue line. The issue was that teammate Morgan Rielly was aiming to do the same and as they arrived together, Spezza inadvertently ran interference on his defenceman — leaving him disabled too — as Valeri Nichushkin closed in on the puck.

As expected, Spezza was overly critical of himself after the final buzzer, taking ownership of the mistake and the loss, saying the result fell on him.

He fought

Taken at face value, the story told in the lead-up to puck drop changed the dynamic normally associated with an early-December game.

When it was revealed that Frederik Andersen demanded that Sheldon Keefe break rotation, and instead start him in consecutive nights following Tuesday’s debacle in Philadelphia, suddenly a heightened sense of importance hung over proceedings.

And it seemed a needless amount of pressure was squared on Andersen’s shoulders.

Jason Spezza of the Toronto Maple Leafs battles for the puck against Pierre-Edouard Bellemare of the Colorado Avalanche during the second period of Wednesday's game at the Scotiabank Arena. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

"He wants to be in the fight with the guys,” Keefe explained, saying his goaltender was adamant about starting.

In the end, no amount of pressure or fatigue prevented Andersen from delivering on his intentions, because Andersen was nothing short of excellent despite the loss. Beaten only on a wicked and uncontested release from Nathan MacKinnon in the highest-danger area on the power play, and that Nichushkin breakaway, Andersen gave the Maple Leafs what they have largely been without for the entire season: a chance to win on the second night of a back-to-back.

Where the problem lies is that Andersen had to be nothing short of exceptional for the Maple Leafs to even have a chance in the contest.

And exceptional is a lot to ask for, even from the best of backups.

Tinkering

Among the many things we learned so far with Keefe is that he will not sit on something that’s not working. He brought widespread changes to the underperforming lineup previously manipulated by Mike Babcock, and seems to constantly chip away with in-game adjustments.

Along with a new-look unit many are calling the ‘Negotiation Line’ with Auston Matthews in the middle between Mitch Marner and William Nylander, Keefe switched up two of his three defensive pairings, elevating Tyson Barrie to the No. 1 pair with Rielly, and matching Cody Ceci with Travis Dermott.

While the sheltered minutes seemed to benefit Ceci, who was a positive influence from a possession standpoint and managed to chip in offensively with an important play on Zach Hyman’s game-tying goal in the second period, Keefe did not seem all that thrilled with the combination of Rielly and Barrie.

Failing to serve the intended purpose of generating more offence — and understanding how quick his trigger finger can be — it’s possible that experiment ends abruptly.

First lesson

While not at all suggesting that Andersen didn’t champion his own cause, the fact that he demanded the start versus Colorado was really the only acceptable rationale.

That’s because earlier this week — and before the losses to Philly and Colorado — Keefe said it would be selfish of the organization to consider starting their No. 1 netminder in consecutive nights.

Desperate times might lead to desperate measures as the Leafs fight for a postseason position down the stretch. Might not be best to box yourself in.

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