TORONTO — The best way out of a rut at this stage of the NHL season is by recommitting to the details.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, losers of back-to-back games at Scotiabank Arena, that started with a focused practice on Thursday. They followed it with a meeting on Friday morning and an optional morning skate before hosting the Philadelphia Flyers.
“It’s just being more competitive, more engaged, right from the start,” said veteran defenceman Ron Hainsey. “I think there’s a level here that we haven’t had. … Sometimes goals [against] happen or you make mistakes. You end up with four guys in the corner, you can probably clean that up pretty quick, but other times you just spend too much time in your own zone. That happened in both games.
“We had pucks hitting guys in the feet, bouncing in, that maybe are bad breaks, but it’s probably more a symptom of us spending too much time on our half of the ice. When we’re spending time on the other half of the ice we’re a much better team.”
Dropping games 6-2 to Tampa and 5-4 to Chicago has raised some external questions about the Leafs’ readiness for the playoffs. Internally, there’s a sense of urgency to curb the slide, but not nearly the same level of panic that resides amongst portions of the fanbase.
Toronto still has a chance to reel in Boston and claim home ice for their first-round series — needing to make up four points over the final 12 games of the regular season (the Leafs currently own the tiebreaker).
That’s one carrot they’re trying to chase.
“It’s huge,” said Jake Muzzin. “Momentum, energy, the first two games of a series, it’s always nice being at home with the crowd. But you’re going to have to win games on the road, there’s no getting around it in playoffs. So I mean we’ll deal with what we got, but we’re definitely pushing for home ice.”
There’s also some pride in play.
The Leafs could live with the loss to the Lightning, given that it came a little more than 24 hours after returning from Western Canada against the NHL’s top team. Falling behind the Blackhawks 5-0 on Wednesday was much tougher to stomach, even though they nearly rallied to tie the game in the final minute.
They didn’t watch too many clips from that game while preparing for the Flyers. Instead, they tried to use Thursday’s practice to start rebuilding any confidence lost while getting booed on home ice in two straight games and seeing Frederik Andersen pulled in back-to-back NHL starts for the first time ever.
“To practice like this it’s good to kind of flush last night a little bit, refocus, get a good feeling back. It’s important,” Morgan Rielly said Thursday. “We’ve got lots of leadership, we’ve got lots of guys that are hungry and looking forward to playing again because they want a clean slate and to go out there and start playing good hockey.”
The lineup will be shuffled mildly against Philadelphia, with Justin Holl drawing in for Igor Ozhiganov on the third defensive pairing and winger Zach Hyman potentially returning after missing Wednesday’s game with an illness. Hyman is being called a game-time decision.
Babcock is turning back to Andersen in goal after having an informal chat with him following the consecutive hooks. The Dane has seen his save percentage fall from .924 to .920 this week.
“He’s been around a long time and I think, for all of us, getting a good slapping once in a while is a good thing,” said Babcock. “You adjust and you get back at it.”
That’s where the team is at, too.
The playoffs are drawing closer so the focus is intensifying on every aspect of the team. Every little thing matters.
“Ball’s in our court, let’s do what we can,” said Babcock. “I think the biggest thing other than the standings [is getting] better every day. Get better every day, be playing right, taking care of the puck, heavy on offence, solid on defence.
“Do all the little details and in the end you’re happy in the spring. If you don’t have your game going, you won’t be.”