"Sometimes the image we have of ourselves isn’t real." —Mike Babcock
TORONTO – Here’s a first.
The Toronto Maple Leafs failed to respond to their coach’s challenge.
A letdown at home to New Jersey begat an overtime stunner and a multi-year-slump-buster in Montreal. A tumble into Ottawa’s trap resulted in a complete, 200-foot victory over mighty Los Angeles.
But a stinker Thursday versus Carolina has led only to a shortened practice, questions about goaltending, juggled lines, and, now, for the first time all year, consecutive losses.
Both at home. Both deserved.
The Leafs lost 4-2 to the Philadelphia Flyers Saturday in prime time, their third loss in four games. Combined score of those defeats: 16-8.
"Things were easy for us early, and now teams have done a real nice job in the neutral zone and made it harder for us. We had 10 neutral-zone turnovers in the first period," Babcock pointed out post-game.
"A little reality therapy is probably set in for us. Everything was great and everyone was telling us how great we were. We probably weren’t as great as we felt at that time, and right now we’re probably not as bad as we feel at this time. Dig in and win a game."
For the fourth consecutive outing, Toronto’s high-flying forwards couldn’t score four, let alone five, as they were prone to do with regularity in Week 1. And Frederik Andersen couldn’t keep the enemy under four—something the No. 1 goaltender must do with more frequency as opponents bear down.
"I’m putting in the work to be better, and I know it’s going to come," Andersen said. "Stay positive—that’s all you can do."
Stay positive, you say? Josh Leivo is the posterboy.
Nursing minor ailments and expected to return to the Leafs’ lineup Monday in San Jose, wingers Matt Martin and James van Riemsdyk both sat out their first game of the season, opening the door for a pair of young forwards champing at the bit.
Kasperi Kapanen, whose last NHL action was during April’s playoffs, was recalled from the AHL Marlies and flown in from Syracuse.
Leivo, the ever-patient black ace, drew into his first pro hockey game in 219 days.
"Leivs has been great with that. We’ve talked about it lots. We’ve had players here in the past who were disgruntled and when they went somewhere else, they found out they weren’t NHL players," Mike Babcock said this week, memories of Frank Corrado and Peter Holland dancing in the coach’s head.
"You’re getting paid to get better, you’re getting paid to train, you’re getting paid to be ready.
"The thing about the NHL, you gotta take someone’s job. No one gives it to you. The other guys in front of him, they don’t want to give it to him—that’s how they’re feeding their family."
Leivo, in particular, seized his window, grabbing an assist for his 11th point in his last 14 games, and setting up Kapanen, William Nylander and rushing defenceman Ron Hainsey for quality scoring chances.
By the third period, he’d been elevated up the lineup and was deployed in the final minutes as the Leafs tried to claw back. Leivo fired four shots (tied for the team high), and his 14:56 of ice time put his action more in line with Tyler Bozak’s and Leo Komarov’s than Kapanen’s and Dominic Moore’s.
"He was competitive," said Babcock. "We need more of that from some of the guys that have been playing each and every night."
Namely, the in-flux Bozak line, which the coach said will require a deep breath and a western flight filled with game tape to fix.
The visiting Flyers — who thrice silenced the Leafs’ highly regarded power-play, including a brief 5-on-3 advantage — made good on their opportunities, their success arriving exclusively on speedy zone entries.
"We gave up the blue line too easy and gave them some rush chances," Nazem Kadri said.
Kadri opened the scoring on a pretty feed from Auston Matthews, whose shot had to be respected by Philadelphia goaltender Brian Elliott, but Philly responded three minutes later and never looked back.
First, defenceman Brandon Manning, drifting in untouched due to a lackadaisical Marner backchecking effort, one-timed a pretty Scott Laughton cross-ice pass.
Then Jakub Voracek benefitted from a non-call — Radko Gudas interfered with Leo Komarov, and Babcock said it "should’ve been a penalty" — in the neutral zone and deked Frederik Andersen five-hole, keeping the puck on a 2-on-1.
"A couple lapses, a couple bad breaks, and they capitalized," Kadri said. "The effort’s there. We’re trying."
In Period 2, Valtteri Filppula — who nixed a trade to Toronto but accepted one to Philly at the 2016-17 trade deadline — sniped a high-glove wrister clean past Andersen off the wing, and Claude Giroux did the same less than five minutes later. The book is out.
Did Andersen feel like the Flyers were purposely aiming high?
"I don’t know about that," the goalie said. "Maybe."
It wasn’t all bad for the home side.
Toronto’s second goal was the direct product of the hard work preached so vehemently within these walls.
Morgan Rielly held the puck in the Flyers’ zone under duress, Connor Brown dug hard to fish out a loose puck in the crease, and Kadri dove head-first to flick it behind Elliott, smashing the net-cam’s lens in the process.
"There’s going to be these little slips through the season, but we believe in ourselves," said Matthews. "We believe we’re a good team."
Zoom out a twist.
The big picture came into focus a few hours before the puck dropped on the 2017-18 Maple Leafs’ first set of back-to-back losses, when Babcock was asked if he’d ever had a deeper bench of forward talent at his disposal.
"I did coach Detroit, you know? Sure, I have. Deeper, more mature players too, if that makes any sense," Babcock said.
"We need some guys to get better. We’re OK. We can be better. I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves if we think this team’s as good as Detroit. Not yet."
Toronto embarks on the always-treacherous road trip through California next week before visiting stingy, structured St. Louis next Saturday.
How they stack up against some of the league’s best defences and sharpest netminders, without getting the favourable matchups, will give us a better sense of just how good this 7-4 team is.
The roadie kicks off Monday in San Jose, and Patrick Marleau expects "a lot of emotions" when he slips on something other than teal and attempts to snuff out his new team’s losing skid at two.
"With Patty going back home there, it’s definitely a game we want to win for him," said Matthews.
"He needs a 100th game-winner," Babcock noted. "That would be a nice night to get it."