TORONTO — The line between horrible and overpowering may be thinner than we thought.
The Toronto Maple Leafs hit both ends of the spectrum in what was supposed to be a bounce-back effort against the Chicago Blackhawks — a game that underlined just how fragile one of the NHL’s best teams can be.
“That first period was just unacceptable,” said Auston Matthews, who has emerged as a strong voice amid some March struggles. “It’s pretty much playoff hockey now so we’ve got to step up our game, especially to start games in general. That’s two in a row for us that we haven’t got off to a good start and it’s cost us big time and we’ve had to crawl our way back.”
On some level, Monday’s 6-2 loss to Tampa was understandable, given the Lightning’s position atop the NHL standings and Toronto’s late return from a West Coast road trip. But Chicago is not Tampa, despite boasting some serious offensive weapons, and the Leafs were given Tuesday off to rest before spending Wednesday morning reviewing defensive zone coverages.
“We talk about it every day,” said John Tavares. “So, no question, we have to go out there and execute. It’s definitely something that has to be a priority for us.”
There could be no other conclusion after getting completely caved in for 20 minutes and falling behind 4-0.
Frederik Andersen played a role in the immolation — his season save percentage has dropped from .924 to .920 after allowing eight goals on the last 33 shots and getting hooked in back-to-back games — but the goaltender’s teammates did a lousy job of covering for him, too.
At one point, four of them rushed towards Dylan Sikura in the corner, while Frederik Gauthier failed to get a body or stick on Brandon Saad in the slot. Tavares was caught with no defensive support when he turned the puck over to Patrick Kane at the offensive blue line and couldn’t get back to disrupt the ensuing 2-on-1.
It was bad, plain and simple, the kind of period that has to alarm a team carrying weighty expectations and is just four weeks away from the start of the playoffs.
“We turned the puck over a little bit, we didn’t play hard enough, we weren’t quick enough in our own zone, we didn’t skate good enough or compete at a high enough level,” said coach Mike Babcock, perhaps keeping the list of offences even shorter than he could have.
The Leafs were not at full strength — seeing Zach Hyman join the wounded list because of illness, stuck in the press box alongside Kasperi Kapanen (concussion), Jake Gardiner (back) and Travis Dermott (shoulder) — but perfect isn’t walking through the door at Scotiabank Arena any time soon.
That’s simply not how things go in this sport, especially once the playoffs start to take their toll.
Toronto is going to have to get by with a third defensive pairing of Martin Marincin and Igor Ozhiganov (or Justin Holl) for the foreseeable future. It needs the forwards to play with structure and not be so cavalier in the neutral zone.
Even a team with this much skill can’t usually skill its way through tight games that tend to feature only a small handful of power plays.
“We’ve got guys that can play, we’ve got four lines,” said Matthews. “Everybody’s got to show up and everybody’s got to do their job. No excuses.”
“Everything kind of feeds off one another,” said Tavares, in explaining the defensive shortcomings. “When one part of the chain isn’t working it kind of affects everything else. When we’re doing things right and we’re executing — we’re in good spots and we’re not turning pucks over — that allows us to get above people in the neutral zone and not let other teams get easy entries, easy forechecks.”
The Leafs have to be discouraged not just with the back-to-back losses following a 2-0-1 road trip, but also that both came immediately after Boston dropped a game. The Bruins had points in 19 straight before that and continue to hold a four-point lead for home ice in their eventual first-round series.
There was only so much hope that could be found in the fact Toronto managed to roar back with four goals in a span of 20:02 against Chicago, nearly tying the game in the final minute while Garret Sparks was pulled for an extra attacker.
If anything, the ferocious finish only served as a reminder of what could have been had they started with any real will or structure.
“We were just on them, on top of them all third, getting the puck back, taking care of it, not turning it over and just playing the game that we can play,” said Matthews. “We were fast and we were above ‘em, checking the puck back, playing in their end below the dots and creating havoc.
“That’s the way we need to start the game.”
But that didn’t happen.
“Two games starting like that, I think that’s enough for this group,” said Matthews. “I think we’ve got to turn the page and make sure this doesn’t happen again.”