ST. PAUL, Minn. – If only Mike Babcock could affix blinders to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The head coach is a little like the jockey trying to pilot his thoroughbred through a muddy stretch of track right now. It was with a straight face that Babcock said “I don’t know why the guys would be squeezing their sticks” following Thursday’s 2-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild and, in the big picture, he’s absolutely right.
They remain one of the NHL’s highest-scoring teams.
But in the here and now – with Auston Matthews on the shelf for an indefinite period of time, and a fifth game in seven days looming Friday in Detroit – they are far from full gallop. The schedule and the road are catching up with them. The grind is real.
“I think we’re just doubting ourselves too much right now,” said Mitch Marner, improbably stuck on one goal in his last 32 games.
“We’re not trusting ourselves with the puck. We’re giving it away too much and I think everyone in general in here has a lot more skill than we all think and we’ve got to start using that more on the ice and trust each other with the puck.
“I think when we start doing that it’s going to come out on the ice, it’s going to show and then we’re going to get more opportunities.”
There is no way to get through an 82-game season without absorbing some body blows, and the Leafs are taking theirs now. Only one NHL team will have played more than their 19 road games after their visit to Detroit. Then they have five more lingering beyond that, including an Arizona-Denver-Las Vegas jaunt directly out of the Christmas break.
Leo Komarov says he’s never endured anything like it – not even during his three-plus seasons with Moscow Dynamo in the KHL, a league that spans 13 time zones.
“Every team goes through it, where the games come kind of a mile a minute it seems like here,” said veteran winger James van Riemsdyk. “You’ve just got to be ready for those and ready to go tomorrow.”
They knew exactly what to expect from Minnesota after a tightly contested meeting at Air Canada Centre last month. Space would be at a premium, the scoring chances few and far between.
By the midway point of the game the Leafs had managed just six shots on Alex Stalock, who took some extra satisfaction from pitching a shutout against the organization that “lit a fire under his belly” by using him sparingly after a deadline deal in 2016.
Toronto started testing him as the second period wore on – with Patrick Marleau and Zach Hyman getting shots in succession following a shift with some cycle time in the offensive zone – and then took it up another notch following the intermission.
First Tyler Bozak, then van Riemsdyk, were denied on open looks.
They squandered four power plays without really unsettling the Wild. Marner believes the Leafs have become too predictable while connecting on just three of the last 19 opportunities overall – with opponents taking away Nazem Kadri in the high slot and frustrating the top unit’s desire to funnel pucks there for him to tip towards the danger zone.
“They did a great job of cutting down the middle of the ice,” said Marner. “Every team is studying us now, they know that we like that high tip. They cut it down pretty well and I think it’s just another learning experience.
“Me and [Tyler Bozak] have got to start shooting it more off the flank, kind of being more of a threat. I think when we start doing that then teams are going to respect us more and leave us a little more open.”
They can use a little more variety. On the plus side, they got three shots from William Nylander – a potential sign that he’s playing more to his strengths while trying to break out of a funk that includes two goals in the last 24 games.
The challenge for Babcock is getting his players to park any extraneous thoughts. The Leafs aren’t panicking – they’re 20-12-1, still in great position – but they’ve got to find their way through this rough patch of schedule while continuing to work towards becoming a more dominant offensive team.
The coach figures that’s best accomplished by putting your head down and focusing only on the task at hand.
“If you look at the schedule, it can [wear you out],” he said. “That’s why you don’t. You’ve got to win today and everything’s OK. … When you look at some points in the schedule – if you would have looked at our last 20 games last year, you’d say no chance could we win 14 games. That’s why you don’t worry about that.
“We’re here today, you’re here today, do a good job today, get up and do it again tomorrow.”
With the games coming a mile a minute, the Leafs are being reminded that it’s much easier said than done.