The Toronto Maple Leafs knew they would have to outwork the Nashville Predators to beat them. They didn’t, and they lost.
Craig Smith netted two goals, and rookie defenseman Seth Jones and Matt Cullen also scored to give the Predators a 4-2 victory over the Maple Leafs on Thursday night.
"We just didn’t play well enough," Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf said. "I don’t think you can say much more than that. We didn’t do enough of the little things against a team that always comes hard.
"They play very disciplined to their system, they have for a long time, and we just weren’t good enough."
The Maple Leafs squandered an early lead with a couple of ill-timed penalties and some spotty defense around the net. After Peter Holland scored his first goal with the Maple Leafs 5:48 in, it appeared as though the whole team went into cruise control.
"We were flat after the first period," Toronto coach Randy Carlyle said. "We didn’t seem to have any energy, we didn’t seem to have any enthusiasm. It just seemed like the game turned, and then we couldn’t get it back."
The Predators (11-9-2) pounced on mistakes. When Toronto forward Mason Raymond high-sticked David Legwand, Jones scored on the power play off Jay McClement’s stick.
"It was a good play on the power play," Jones said. "We worked around pretty well all night. I kind of got it started there. It wasn’t a very hard shot, but it found a way to get in."
Sleepy defense put Toronto behind at 11:14 of the second. Cullen, who finished with four points, whiffed on his original attempt but had no trouble recovering the puck and scoring while Paul Ranger and the Leafs watched.
Smith scored his first goal with James van Riemsdyk in the penalty box for boarding. That gave Nashville a 4-1 lead.
"Second period, I thought we locked down our structure, got on to our game plan a little bit better," Predators coach Barry Trotz said. "I think we were watching Toronto a little bit.
"We created some penalties, and our power play was real huge for us. I thought we locked down the game pretty good."
Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier, who shut out the Predators last month and has dominated them during his NHL career, made 24 saves. Nashville rookie Marek Mazanec stopped 24 shots for the victory.
"We had some chances, so you’re never out of it," Carlyle said. "We had some enthusiasm going, but we hit a crossbar, post, and that was it."
Toronto was outshot 28-26 after jumping out to an 11-5 edge. The Maple Leafs couldn’t put together much sustained attack time or opportunistic offense after Holland scored 5:48 in.
Nazem Kadri scored his sixth of the season with 4:32 remaining to bring the Maple Leafs within 4-2.
The Predators played their ninth road game in 10 contests, but the Maple Leafs (13-8-1) couldn’t take advantage of a tired opponent.
Smith’s second goal at 4:32 of the third surprised Bernier, who had been 8-1 with a 1.67-goals-against average and a .941 save percentage against Nashville.
Well after the game was decided, Kadri scored in his return from a three-game suspension for elbowing Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom in the head.
NOTES: Maple Leafs center Tyler Bozak missed his 11th straight game with a hamstring injury. He could return Saturday against Washington. … Ten of the Predators’ 11 points came from U.S.-born players. Nashville general manager David Poile is the general manager of the U.S. Olympic team.