TORONTO – If the St. Louis Blues come into Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night and play the kind of game Ken Hitchcock preaches, the odds are extremely high that we’ll be talking about the first six-game losing streak of the Toronto Maple Leafs season.
At least that’s what the past results strongly suggest.
But what makes this particular matchup at this particular moment so intriguing is the way it pits two philosophies and two different team makeups against one another.
The Blues are basically the anti-Leafs. They have surrendered the second-fewest shots in the NHL, allowed the third-fewest goals and killed the third-highest number of penalties while putting themselves in legitimate position to challenge for the Presidents’ Trophy.
They’ve also played with a level of patience and defensive structure seldom seen in any Eastern Conference city and especially not in Toronto. While a big part of that comes down to personnel – there is no really equivalent to David Backes or Alex Pietrangelo or even Vladimir Sobotka on the Leafs roster – it is also about a belief system.
And as Hitchcock delivered one of his patented and insightful sermons on the sport following an optional Blues skate on Monday afternoon, he made several observations that reinforced what a culture clash this matchup should be.
“You don’t control the hockey game with offence, you control it with checking,” said Hitchcock, who for the sake of clarity was using “checking” as a synonym for “playing well defensively” in this instance.
“Part of checking is if you’re in the right position you’re always going to get on the offence all the time.”
In other words, the Blues want to wear opponents out. The team’s gameplan demands attention to detail in all areas of the ice and is built on a fundamental belief that they will eventually out-execute you. St. Louis aims to exact death by a thousand cuts with plenty of frustration sprinkled in along the way.
While many hockey fans in Toronto spent Monday fretting about the team’s five-game losing streak and debating whether James Reimer or Drew MacIntyre should start Tuesday’s game, Carlyle was focused solely on what it will take to beat the Blues.
After all, a win is the only thing that will truly improve the situation right now. It would also reignite a playoff push that has been stalled since March 13, when the Leafs eked out a 3-2 victory over Los Angeles that may hold a few pointers to how they need to play against St. Louis.
Toronto found success that evening by using its speed to open up the game, which in turn put the Kings back on their heels. It also got a tremendous individual performance from Reimer, who replaced the injured Jonathan Bernier in goal after 20 minutes. Carlyle predicted that it would take an L.A.-like effort to end the current losing skid after watching footage of the Blues 1-0 win in Pittsburgh on Sunday.
“We’re going to have to move,” he said. “They’re a big, strong hockey club and we have a speed team that when we skate and move the puck effectively through the neutral ice and establish that forecheck, we can be an effective hockey club.”
Clearly, there hasn’t been quite enough of that of late.
The coach also believes that mental lapses have contributed to the slide, which helps explain why so much attention is now being devoted to the goaltending. Reimer hasn’t stolen any of the last five games and thus the Leafs haven’t won any of them.
“We’re making too many (mistakes) that are costing us,” said Carlyle.
Every team is capable of falling victim to that.
Hitchcock was quick to point to a 4-1 loss in Philadelphia on Saturday as an example of when St. Louis abandoned its plan. He felt that the team started chasing goals after only burying one of eight scoring chances in the first period and that allowed the Flyers to roar back for the victory.
The Blues coach even looks at a 6-3 win over Toronto in December as a somewhat cautionary tale because he felt that it wasn’t a complete performance. After building a 4-0 lead and chasing Reimer, he saw his players loosen up and allow the Leafs to at least entertain some thoughts of a comeback.
“For a 15-minute stretch, we didn’t manage (the puck) very well and they just came at us in waves and waves,” said Hitchcock. “It was odd-man rush and scoring chances and they had a 2-on-0. We can’t get into that game because they have too many players who are too good off the rush. They’ve got seven or eight forwards who are great off the rush, who makes plays.
“We can’t get into that game. That’s not the way we’re built.”
Carlyle once opined that opposing players could basically count on getting two points and a hug from their parents during a visit in Toronto. He hated how unimposing the team was on home ice and made a point of emphasizing that issue to his players, who are a solid 22-13-1 at ACC this season.
However, that record didn’t keep Hitchcock from seeing the venue as a positive place to wrap up a four-game road trip.
“Every team from the West that comes to play in Toronto is excited,” he said. “A lot of guys are from Ontario. This is kind of the centre of the universe for hockey – we love it. Our guys are excited, our players are really looking forward to it. “I think it’s a disadvantage for the Maple Leafs to be honest with you.
“Everybody knows what is at stake here when you come to play in Toronto: Everybody’s watching.”
They’ll be watching, all right. Worrying, too.