The Toronto Maple Leafs core is facing the most urgent challenge of its career.
Following a 6-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, the Leafs are mired in their worst five-game stretch since before Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander helped turn around the fortunes of the franchise.
They hadn’t dropped five-straight games since Feb. 23 to March 3, 2017, but managed to pick up three loser points during that slide in Matthews and Marner’s rookie season. They’ve only grabbed one while going 0-4-1 over the last eight days.
“It’s tough to get worse from here. It’s frustrating,” Matthews told reporters. “I think in the locker-room, confidence isn’t exactly high right now. I don’t think we’ve played to the ability that we’re capable of over the last course of games. We’ve got nobody to blame except for ourselves.”
It got ugly in a hurry at PPG Paints Arena — where Kasimir Kaskisuo faced 14 shots in the opening 12 minutes of his first career NHL start. The score was 2-0 at the first intermission.
The game was completely out of reach at 5-0 before it was even half over.
No one associated with the Leafs could have envisioned this kind of sputtering 9-9-4 start, which has left them in the bottom third of the NHL in points percentage.
They’ve been undone by a steady stream of defensive lapses and gave up nine high-danger chances to the Penguins at 5-on-5, according to naturalstattrick.com. That’s far too many, especially with an unproven backup goaltender between the pipes.
Toronto has endured a difficult schedule with six back-to-backs already and is missing Marner (high-ankle sprain), Alex Kerfoot (dental surgery) and Trevor Moore (shoulder) with injuries, but none of those things could be used as an excuse here.
The Penguins were also playing for the second consecutive night and have Sidney Crosby and a few others currently on the shelf.
“There was no reason for us to look the way we did tonight,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “They played last night, we played last night. They’ve got some injuries, we’ve got some injuries. A level playing field.
“The bottom line is they were better than us.”
THE BIG TAKEAWAY
This is not how you envision your NHL debut going.
The cameras caught his mother, Minna, getting emotional when he was introduced before the game. His wife and daughter were among those who made the trip as well. But Kaskisuo’s opportunity has arrived at a time when the Leafs are struggling mightily and he faced 38 shots from the Penguins.
Still, given his journey to this point, the 26-year-old has the makeup of a player who should be able to push through the disappointment.
He was cut by the USHL’s Tri City Storm after moving to North America. He started his first professional season in the ECHL. He was loaned out to the AHL’s Chicago Wolves because the Leafs had a glut of goaltenders. He struggled through injuries and indifferent play early last season with the Marlies.
And, yet, he still managed to realize a NHL dream.
“There’s always ups and downs,” said Kaskisuo. “You just try to develop day by day and look at the end goal.”
His path also included overcoming some lingering doubt that he’d ever get this far.
“I mean everybody would probably lie if they said they didn’t doubt it at some point, but the belief that I can some day get here is stronger than that,” he said. “That [drives] you forward every day and been encouraging that. It’s got me here.”
It should help him get past a difficult debut, too.
• The Leafs have surrendered the first goal against in 17-of-22 games.
• Zach Hyman played 17:30 after skating 19:12 against Boston on Friday. That’s a ton of hockey inside 27 hours for a guy whose only appeared in three games since off-season knee surgery.
• Jason Spezza scored Toronto’s goal from Nic Petan. Both of those players were on the roster bubble until the injuries hit this week.
• Tyson Barrie was a team-worst minus-four, but earned the second assist on Spezza’s goal — just his second point in the last 19 games.
The Leafs have entered a stretch where they play 11-of-13 games on the road. They visit Vegas, Arizona, Colorado, Detroit and Buffalo before next playing at Scotiabank Arena on Nov. 30. Immediately on deck is the scuffling Golden Knights — losers of five straight — at T-Mobile Arena on Tuesday night.