KANATA, ONT. – A deafening message from the mouth of the softest-spoken player on the team.
That’s what Frederik Andersen, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ mid-season MVP, delivered to the media in Philadelphia Thursday night after yet another blown lead and another one-goal loss, the Leafs’ fourth consecutive.
As seasoned coach Mike Babcock has seen so often, things have to get worse before they can get better. The screaming from the bench, the callouts in the press—those can only go so far.
“Feistiness,” Babcock called it. “Internal accountability stuff.”
Change must rise from within.
“To me, that’s the first sign that you might have a chance to actually do something. I thought we had that yesterday, so that was positive,” Babcock said Friday in the bowels of the Canadian Tire Centre.
“I don’t think they needed me to send the message. All you have to do is watch yourself play.”
Stopping short of calling out names and numbers, Andersen — the hardest-working goaltender in the league —stood before the microphones and questioned the odd-man rushes, the effort, the attitude, even the power-play minutes of his mates.
“He doesn’t say much, but when he says something, people listen up. He’s absolutely within his right to be upset because we’ve left him out to dry too many times over this course of games,” Auston Matthews said.
“He’s absolutely right. We have his back. We need to be better for one another, and we need to be better for him.”
That mission resumes Saturday in Ottawa. In spite of the 16-point gap in the standings between the two Ontario clubs and the fact that one is a firm buyer and the other an open-for-business seller as we approach the trade deadline, this one should be ratcheted with tension, both squads losing in ugly fashion one night ago.
Senators coach Guy Boucher put his group through the paces Friday, barking at them to “Finish your checks!” and commit to their drills, threatening at full throat to skate them till they got it right.
Babcock, usually the first one off, stopped Leafs practice early and stood by the gate, watching each man skate off. No fool-around fun time.
“If you want to screw around, come out and do that at optional skate tomorrow,” Babcock said. “There’s lots of ice time. We didn’t want to use it last night.”
The hardworking Connor Brown, who now has breakaway goals in consecutive games, was promoted to the Leafs third line, and Mitchell Marner, who got stripped for a Nolan Patrick goal, was demoted to the fourth line.
Tyler Bozak, the longest-tenured Leaf and centre of the top power-play unit, owned up to giving up two 2-on-1s with the man-advantage against the Flyers.
“It’s a privilege to be on the power play. You gotta work hard. You can’t just go out there and use just your skill,” Bozak said. “It takes a lot of hard work. That’s something we got away from.”
Externally, much has been made about Bozak’s unit reaping more power-play time than Matthews’. It is the type of nitpicky issue that is glossed over when a team is winning and finds a sudden spotlight when a once-scorching offence is drying up. Andersen brought up a touchy subject when he mentioned frustrated guys on the bench witnessing the first unit’s effort.
“The Bozak unit has been our go-to unit, so we’ve been wanting to get better,” said Matthews, whose unit isn’t producing as much and thus seeing less time. “[It’s] not a competition, but [we] push each to get better.”
Take a giant step back, and the Leafs’ woes pale in comparison to the those in Ottawa, where players are concerned about where they’ll be living in March. Fun fact: Toronto actually increased its playoff cushion to 12 points with the OT loss to Philly.
James van Riemsdyk didn’t realize the buffer was that wide until a reporter told him. But what fans don’t know is that, behind closed doors, strong comments like Andersen’s aren’t so rare.
“I don’t know if you guys realize, stuff like that probably happens more often than you think it would — inside,” van Riemsdyk said.
“That’s what makes a good team, when you can have those honest conversations with each other.”
The Leafs have lost four in a row and looked bad doing it. They deviated from the clichés and aired a little laundry.
Saturday brings an opportunity to respond against a floundering divisional rival that has their number, defeating them twice already this season. Motivation should not be an issue.
“The last couple weeks have been the tipping point for us. We want to turn it around right away,” Matthews said.
“It’s something that has to be within the team, within every guy, looking at each other across the room and playing for one another.”