Pekka Rinne, Predators frustrate Leafs in shutout win

Pekka Rinne, Predators frustrate Leafs in shutout win
Leafs coach Mike Babcock didn’t come right out and say his team was schooled by the Nashville Predators on Monday night.

But, yeah, they were schooled all right.

The defending Presidents’ Trophy winners — and Stanley Cup finalists two years ago — the Predators played a solid road game, working from the opening faceoff to the final buzzer in a 4-0 win over the Leafs.

Matthias Ekholm, P.K. Subban, Colton Sissons and Kevin Fiala scored for Nashville.

The fact the Predators scored twice in the final three minutes of the third period underlined their work ethic. And it underlined to the Leafs what work ethic is all about.

“I didn’t mind us through two periods,” Babcock said, referring to the fact the Leafs were only down two goals and still looking like they could turn things around if they could get a spark to get them rolling. “In saying that, they were up 2-0, they blocked a lot of shots, and they were heavy on the puck … we got a lesson from a veteran team.

“In the third period, I don’t know if we thought we’d race around, but (the Predators) stayed calm, they competed … in the third, it was men and boys.”

Babcock is usually right on in his assessments of how his team played, and Monday night’s post-game presser was no different.

The Leafs desperately needed their special teams to make a difference, but they went 0-for-3 on the power play and have not scored with the man advantage in 10 of the team’s last 12 games.

So Toronto got schooled, again, with a lesson they should know by now. They even talked about it at the morning skate — how solid Nashville is with its top-rated defenceman and its ability to shut down open ice.

It might be more of a realization than a lesson. The Leafs have a ton of offensive weapons, but teams know how to stop them. Neutral zone clogging and strong forechecking are details they have to learn to beat with patience.

They’ll need to learn quickly too: The NHL is moving into a phase where every team and every game will feature tough checking.

Nylander is skating well with the puck. He’s dangerous if given room in the offensive zone. And he has a wicked wrist shot that he needs to use more.

For Babcock, though, all that is icing on the cake. It’s the cake that concerns the coach; he wants Nylander to be more competitive in backchecking and playing in his own zone.

“He’s got to get better,” Babcock said. “All the details, the compete, all that stuff. Just has to keep getting better. He will the more he plays but the urgency level has to be there, for sure.”

The Leafs need him back. On Monday, Babcock flipped Patrick Marleau and Connor Brown, with Marleau joining John Tavares and Mitch Marner. Brown took up Marleau’s former post on the Nazem Kadri line with Kasperi Kapanen.

The results? Nothing appreciable.

Toronto has the day off Tuesday. They’ll be back practising Wednesday, and it could be an interesting to see if Babcock shakes up his lines a bit.

Hyman presumably will return to his old spot with Tavares and Marner, creating a domino effect that will bump someone, likely a fourth-liner, to the press box. Babcock hinted over the weekend that Trevor Moore, who has been tremendous filling in on the fourth line, might be better served scoring goals with the Marlies than seeing eight or fewer minutes a night with the Leafs.

Tampa Bay has a comfortable lead, with 66 points, but it gets tight after that. Calgary is alone in second with 58 points, after a win over Chicago Monday. Toronto and Vegas are next with 56, Nashville has 55, Winnipeg and Washington have 54, and San Jose, which played late Monday, entered the night with 53. Boston and Pittsburgh have 52, leaving eight teams separated by four points.

The race for home-ice advantage in the playoffs is on. And the Leafs need to stay in, if not in front of, this pack.
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