TORONTO — Despite another Saturday-night loss and a further widened gap between the chaser and the chased, the blip of a crisis that was Last Week with the Toronto Maple Leafs — a hellish, noisy implosion that’ll come and go as quick as a news cycle — is history.
The Leafs may still be taking baby steps, with full knowledge that the time to gallop is only 19 days away, but at least they’re doing that. Seven days ago, they couldn’t locate their shoes.
Yes, the home side was defeated by a lesser talent, 2-1 in overtime, and again ran nose-first into the 179 pounds of Bulgarian Brick that is New York Rangers backup Alexandar Georgiev, infuriating Auston Matthews to the point where he smashed his Bauer over the dasher boards.
But for the third consecutive game, Toronto outshot its opposition (45-28) and dominated the run of play, out-attempting the men in front of Georgiev 104-58.
“There were points in the game where it seemed like we had the puck the whole time,” said Matthews, after personally posting a career-high 13 scoring chances.
“That goalie’s just got our number.”
Toronto has dressed the better hockey team all week, even if the results or the goaltending — three points in three outings — didn’t always bear it out.
The ugliness on and off the ice is in Toronto’s rear-view, and there’s a firm understanding of what these final seven games before the post-season mean for the Atlantic Division’s No. 3 seed now that Boston has essentially clinched home ice, rolling all-cylinders past 100 points and ripping through a four-game win streak.
The ramp-up to TD Garden is on.
The Maple Leafs have survived both the late-season swoon and the media “[poop]storm” portion of the schedule (no one uttered a slur on the ice, and the GM and coach have cleared the air, so let’s keep it moving, shall we?).
They have officially entered the please-no-one-else-get-hurt stretch.
“We’re focused on each other on this club, and that’s it,” Matthews said. “So anything, drama or controversy, that goes on in the media or on the outside, I don’t think anybody in here gives it much thought.”
The sole focus here and now: Staying healthy and sharpening their play in preparation for Game 1 in big, bad, Boston, who’s hung 17 goals over a three-game rip.
That being the case, Toronto’s schedule has laid out lovely.
The Leafs can take advantage of a soft slate of lottery-bound franchises, many of whom have already waved the white towel, stripping away key components at the trade deadline with an eye toward 2019-20 and beyond.
Beginning with Wednesday’s convincing victory in Buffalo and continuing with Saturday’s point at home to a depleted Rangers squad, the Leafs have five straight games against teams among the league’s bottom 15.
Next week: Florida, Philadelphia, and Ottawa. All beatable with a decent effort, even with a banged-up roster and a flu going around.
What these tune-up games lack in atmosphere and stakes they can make up for in opportunity.
A chance for No. 1 goalie Frederik Andersen to regain a confidence that had voters mentioning his name in Vezina conversations until 10 days ago.
A chance to smarten the breakouts, dial in the structure, oil up the power play, and puff up the stats sheet.
“We’ve got a number of guys who haven’t scored in a bit,” said coach Mike Babcock, following a night of high-danger chances coming up empty. “The way I look at that is, that’s usually going to change.”
A chance to maybe open a game’s scoring, something they failed to do for the seventh consecutive time Saturday.
The D was Exhibits A, B and C in a team meeting held in Nashville at the beginning of the week.
“At times over the course of a long season, you can lose focus a little bit on what’s important and the proper structure,” Morgan Rielly said. “And the way we play, it’s important to play well defensively. I think we got away from that for a little bit.”
Dermott returned to practice Friday wearing a red, non-contact sweater and his trademark optimism. He’s still a few skates away and won’t rush things, but he’s close.
Gardiner was back on the ice this week, but only for solo work, and he needed Saturday off after testing his back Friday. There is still no timeline for his return.
“It’s a huge deal for us,” Babcock said. “Both those guys are good puck-movers and good players, and we miss ’em.”
The Leafs looked determined, not discouraged, Saturday to find themselves fighting through an atypically low-scoring affair. Zach Hyman scored his 19th and scrummed it up with passion when linemate John Tavares got cross-checked to the ice by Marc Staal. Matthews kept plugging and firing away through his bad luck and off aim.
“This is our third straight year [in the playoffs], and we want to make sure we’re heading in on the right note,” Matthews said. “Not taking shortcuts.
“Just keep going. We’re good players. Those are eventually going to go in. If it’s not tonight, it’s tomorrow. If it’s not tomorrow, hopefully the next game.”
At worst, these not-so-meaningful matches against softer opponents could open the door for complacency, but to a man, the Leafs insist they won’t let that happen. They can’t afford to.
“The adversity we faced here a week ago,” Babcock said, “I think it’s a good thing.
“It’s not supposed to be easy.