Weak goals, not weather Maple Leafs’ worst enemy in Heritage Classic

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HAMILTON — Petr Mrazek could wish it was the wind that pushed him off his post.

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Maybe it was rogue snowflakes that blurred the eyes of Toronto shooters on 34 of 36 shots. Or Auston Matthews was just trying to keep his hands warm by delivering a couple of upper-body crosschecks to Rasmus Dahlin that ultimately earned him a Monday hearing with the NHL Department of Player Safety.

In the end, natural elements of the Heritage Classic had less to do with the Maple Leafs losing 5-2 to the Buffalo Sabers than their own hiccups in The Hammer before 26,119 mostly Toronto fans. Indoors or out, the Leafs can’t put beatable teams away, now 2-4 in stretch against non-playoff clubs, while a lethal combo of weird goals against continues to hex.

Two of those losses have come against Buffalo, which started the month on a six-game losing streak and now had put 10 goals past the Leafs including an empty-netter Sunday.

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“There’s no such thing as an off night in this league,” defenseman and alternate Morgan Rielly said of that record. “Teams are hungry, guys are playing for contracts.

“We talk about all the right things in the room before the game, whether it was this one or playing these guys two weeks ago, or Arizona or Seattle. But teams come out and play us hard and it’s on us to respond.

“I don’t think it’s an issue for us long-term, but right now it’s tough sledding.”

Maple Leafs' TJ Brodie tangles with Buffalo Sabers' Cody Eakin during the second period during in Hamilton.  CLAUS ANDERSEN/GETTY IMAGES
Maple Leafs’ TJ Brodie tangles with Buffalo Sabers’ Cody Eakin during the second period during in Hamilton. CLAUS ANDERSEN/GETTY IMAGES

In the Leafs’ tortured 50-year history of road losses to the Sabers, this one will definitely linger. They’ve bussed into Buffalo, taken a short plane trip, arrived two days ahead, at the last minute and morning skated here and there. But it’s added up to 33-67-12.

This was a new venue, no roof, and the promise of redemption. Instead, Mrazek took his place among those many unfortunate netminders, despite 33 saves.

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“The third goal didn’t go well,” he said of Vinnie Hinostroza’s second strike finding a hole between his arm and the near post. “He put it on and it squeezed through my arm from him. I was too high and went down while he shot.”

On the fourth, also the second of the night for Peyton Krebs, he snuck in the back door and beat Mrazek as he knocked his own net off. Surprised it jarred so easily, Mrazek and coach Sheldon Keefe argued vehemently to not avail.

“I read the play really well, I knew it was coming to the middle and you try to push out,” Mrazek said. “I think it was clear I pushed when the puck was still behind the net.”

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Those bad goals came in the wake of Hinostroza banking a puck in from behind the net off TJ Brodie. Minutes earlier, the Leafs’ defenseman had his 300th NHL point on Matthews’ 45th goal. Combined with Ondrej Kase’s it provided a 2-1 lead. But they couldn’t take charge.

“We got some momentum, but their second goal off our foot was a tough bounce and we didn’t get enough offense to make up for it,” Keefe said.

The switched teams ends halfway through the third period to even up the gusty conditions.

“It took some adjusting for sure,” said Keefe of the weather pattern. “But as the game went on, it settled down, the snow stopped.”

Mrazek made 13 first-period saves and was not overly criticized by Keefe, but debate of whether to start rookie Erik Kallgren Tuesday versus Dallas, or think outside the box for help via trade, will ramp up.

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Right after Matthews was foiled in his wheelhouse by Craig Anderson’s glove, John Tavares controlled a draw to William Nylander that Kase tapped over the line. Buffalo got that right back when Timothy Liljegren jumped off the bench and lost the puck that Krebs converted. While Rasmus Sandin returned to the Toronto lineup, Liljegren had a difficult day with partner Justin Holl.

After Alex Kerfoot fed Matthews cross ice on his way off, the former snapped it in with arms raised in celebration to the full main grandstand.

“It’s kind of sad for us (today),” Kase said. “Because the atmosphere was pretty good.”

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