ANAHEIM, Calif. — There is no way to sugar-coat an oh-for-California road trip.
Not at this critical stage of the season. Not with a journey formerly known as the Valley of Death now taking you through cities featuring three of the NHL’s five-worst teams.
They’re still holding a playoff spot and still holding out hope that things will start to fall in place with some key players soon set to return from injury. However, they also recognize the need to retreat into the safety of the team environment with the heat being dialled up around them.
“As a team, we’re trying to stay calm,” said Mitch Marner. “I know media’s a big part in this city that we play in. I think for our team it’s just about staying off that — the social media, people are just going to start getting on us and we’re a unit in here, we’re a team.
“We know what to say to each other to get ourselves going.”
This is a group often criticized for being too run-and-gun and it just allowed two goals against in 125 minutes of play and earned one out of a possible four points. That’s not something you’d ever expect to see from Sheldon Keefe’s high-octane team and they’re banking on the likelihood the scoring returns sooner than later.
Still, losing to this version of the Ducks should sting.
They were down their top four defencemen because of injury and somehow managed to tilt the Honda Center ice despite facing a huge deficit in talent.
The Leafs looked sluggish, choppy and disconnected while creating just four high-danger scoring chances at 5-on-5.
“I think they did a really good job in their neutral zone just kind of clogging it up,” said Auston Matthews, in diagnosing why the offence dried up here. “Really wasn’t much [for us] — not many entries, not a lot of odd-man rushes for us tonight, so they did a really good job. Obviously you’ve got to give them credit, they played really well in that area of the game and kind of forced us to dump pucks.
“We didn’t really have too much speed or anything going in on it so they were able to break out pretty quick. We weren’t able to generate much into their zone and sustain pressure.”
Their offensive attack has gone stale, particularly on a once-lethal power play that turned in another 0-for-3 performance against Anaheim.
They also wasted a strong performance from backup goaltender Jack Campbell, who allowed a goal before the four-minute mark and slammed the door shut for the next 45-plus minutes.
He made a ridiculous save on Ryan Getzlaf late in the second period, displaying cat-like reflexes to glove a puck that appeared destined for the top shelf. All the Ducks captain could do was chuckle.
Marner, in the penalty box following an uncharacteristically poor tripping penalty, nearly broke his stick cheering on Campbell.
“That’s a hell of save,” said Marner.
Under the duress of this playoff race — Toronto still holds a five-point edge over Florida in the Atlantic Division, but has opened the door slightly with two more games played — the team’s young stars are taking ownership for missteps.
Marner apologized for that penalty.
“Just stupid on my part there,” he said. “You know, frustration took over there. That’s the last time that happens, I’m better than that.”
And Matthews, who tossed the puck blindly into the middle of his own zone and saw Adam Henrique promptly bury it for a 2-0 Ducks lead, owned up to his lack of awareness in that situation.
“I thought I heard a guy, at least on our team, that was kind of in that spot,” he said. “Usually I expect a guy to be there. I just tried to kind of break their pressure and obviously I made a bad mistake, bad turnover, that led to a goal.
“That’s obviously on me and I take responsibility for it.”
But the most puzzling stat of all is how a group that was until recently scoring four goals per game under Keefe went more than 147 minutes between goals on this trip — a stretch that went from the second period of Tuesday’s game in San Jose until William Nylander’s 30th of the season in the dying minutes.
Matthews suggested that they’re still looking to find the right balance between defending and attacking.
“I think we’re kind of one foot in the door, one foot out, as far as the way we want to play,” he said. “I think we all just need to be 100 per cent in.”
“You look at a lot of the goals that we’ve scored here in recent games, a lot of it’s been happening around the net. We need to have more of a presence in there,” said Keefe. “But it’s an interesting road trip. You’d never think that our team would give up two goals in two games and only come away with one point.
“You’d probably think we were talking about a different team, but that’s the reality, that’s the way it was this week.”
Should they end up losing grip on their playoff spot down the stretch, this string of games will haunt them.
There’s no way around it.