TORONTO – Some themes are developing, and they aren’t pretty.
As the Toronto Maple Leafs are left, on their day off, to stew in Monday’s 6-3 demolishing by the ice-cold Colorado Avalanche, that hard stare in the mirror should make them realize that things cannot continue this way.
“We’ve only got ourselves to blame,” coach Mike Babcock said. “Myself as the head coach, I’m responsible. We didn’t play well enough, we didn’t play hard enough, and the players are the same way. We weren’t good enough.”
Bingo. But why?
Not having a healthy No. 1 goalie for three weeks is the obvious obstacle, and we’ll save you another rant about finding a stud defenceman to patrol the right side, but the fissures run deeper.
The Leafs aren’t built for big-boy hockey
Diligent solo efforts by a couple of sturdy Colorado power forwards, Mikko Rantanen and Carl Soderberg, allowed them to strip pucks off Leafs (Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner, respectively) in their own zone and score back-breaking goals.
“We have to bear down more, be harder to play against,” Morgan Rielly said. “It’s important that we realize that.”
The Leafs were outhit by Colorado 25-13 Monday, and we’re certain that stat would be even more lopsided if the Avs didn’t have the puck all night.
Can Toronto flip a switch and play the heavy brand of hockey believed necessary to survive the post-season?
“I think we can play heavy. Heavy is a mindset. I don’t think you necessarily have to have massive guys. You can still play heavy. We have a lot of guys who can. I think everybody can do that — play on the cycle and do things you need to do to win,” argues Zach Hyman, arguably the best example the Leafs own for heavy hockey.
“You just have to have the mindset that you’re not going to be pushed off the puck. Be strong on it. Brace yourself. Spin off guys. Just be tenacious. It’s a tenacious mindset. I dunno. It’s a nature-versus-nurture type of thing. I just grew up that way. My parents told me to go give 100 per cent when I was out there. For me, that’s going into the corners. A mindset.”
The Leafs have been lousy at home lately
Not since they purposely tanked to get as many balls as possible for the Auston Matthews lottery have the Maple Leafs endured a home stretch this dismal.
During their run to a franchise-best 29 home wins in 2017-18, Babcock delivered a great little speech about the importance of ruling your own barn and how he wanted visiting clubs to be worrying about how difficult it would be to scrape two points as they ate dinner the night prior to a date in Toronto.
That’s not happening.
The Leafs have now lost five of six at Scotiabank Arena by a combined score of 21-13. In two of those five losses, they got shut out. In the other three, they had the lead and fumbled it.
Their lone home win this month came against an exhausted Canucks team wrapping its third six-game road trip of the season without its best player in the lineup (Elias Pettersson).
The Maple Leafs haven’t defeated any team currently in a playoff position at home since November.
Such sloppiness — mental gaffes that lead to goals, questionable efforts, declining special teams — is especially confounding in games Toronto should gear up for.
They were booed off the ice when Mathew Barzal’s Islanders rolled through and shut them out in John Tavares’s first game against his former team. And Gardiner bore the brunt of fans’ frustration Monday, fielding flurries of boos both online and in real life, when Toronto should’ve been emboldened with the return of Frederik Andersen.
“That hasn’t happened before, that’s for sure,” an emotional Gardiner said. “Not something you want to hear, but plays happen in the game. Fans are passionate and they want to win.”
The natives are restless.
Is complacency becoming an issue?
It’s reasonable to peek at the NHL standings and wonder if a sense of complacency may be seeping into the room. The Maple Leafs hold a three-point lead (plus two games in hand) over Montreal for a spot in the Atlantic Division’s 2-3 matchup, but trail the force of nature that is the Tampa Bay Lightning by a nearly insurmountable 14 points for the top seeding.
Why not battle to ensure the second seed and home ice? That’s certainly something worth battling for — Game 7s at TD Garden have not exactly brought out Toronto’s good side — except these Leafs have been a decidedly better, looser and more determined group on the road this season (15-5-1) than at home (13-10-1).
The Leafs have drawn opponents more desperate for points than them, and it has showed.
“It’s time now to put up or shut up,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar proclaimed prior to Monday’s tilt. His players had dropped nine of 10 and yet was firmly in the playoff mix, thanks to the Central Division’s mushy middle.
Rielly has copped to the Leafs letting their foot off the pedal for costly stretches. Truth is, as the third-best team in the East, the Leafs can put up now, or coast for a bit and then put up.
“We didn’t come ready to work. They did,” Mitch Marner admitted post-game. “They were on a little bit of a slide down, and they came ready to play us. We didn’t do the same.”
So many slumping forwards
The frustration of scoring but one goal and two assists in 16 games is eating at William Nylander, and it shows. Following another near-miss Monday — and during another minus outing — Nylander whacked his stick on the glass in anger.
Yes, there’s more jump in his legs than a month ago, but the invisible monkey he threw off his back on Jan. 3 may have hid a baby in his hood.
Patrick Marleau has now gone nine games without a goal. It’s been 10 since he’s finished on the plus side of the ledger.
Nazem Kadri has scored once in his past 18 and, after back-to-back 32-goal campaigns, is tracking for only 17.
Auston Matthews is contributing assists, but even he is stuck in his worst goal dip of the season, finding the net once in 10 games.
“When you go down and things don’t go right, you’ve got to dig in and you’ve got to find a way out of it in a hurry,” Babcock said.
“That’s a sense of urgency. That’s also being loose and driving and playing right.”
Toronto is still searching for its go-to matchup line
John Tavares’s line with Marner and Zach Hyman is the coach’s most trusted, so Babcock hard-matched them against Boston and Colorado.
But Nathan MacKinnon’s all-star trio absolutely caved in the Leafs, dominating zone time and scoring opportunities in the best-on-best.
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy has said he actually wants his best line, Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak, to go head-to-head with Tavares.
On other nights, Auston Matthews’ group has been given that shutdown role.
And Kadri relished the challenge over the past two seasons, memorably getting under the skin of superstars like Joe Thornton and Connor McDavid; he looks significantly less engaged facing his fellow 3Cs with a constantly rotating cast of wingmen.
“What I’d like to do is I’d like to be able to give all three of those groups matchups as time goes on,” Babcock says. But? “We’ve got to be playing good enough.”
As Toronto exhales Tuesday and looks ahead to its next challenge, Thursday’s doozy in Tampa, there is a silver lining: They can be better than this. Much better.
“We can compete way harder than we are right now. For whatever reason, since Christmas we haven’t found that level. I don’t know why that is,” Babcock said.
“The league is going by, and everyone is getting better, and we’ve hit a lull. We’ve got to get turned.”