PITTSBURGH — This feels like a defining moment.
The Toronto Maple Leafs hit rock bottom in this arena for the second time in three months and this time there’s no coach to toss overboard. The wheels were set in motion for Mike Babcock’s firing following a 6-1 loss here to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Nov. 16 and after Tuesday’s 5-2 defeat in the return visit to The House That Sidney Crosby Built, the only bullets being fired were inside the visiting dressing room.
There was no sugar-coating the lack of effort and execution. The frustration hung heavy in the air. Forty-eight hours after laying an egg in Buffalo, the Leafs laid another one.
“I don’t think we’ve played this poorly since the last time we were in this building months ago,” said Auston Matthews.
“Our urgency just doesn’t seem to be there consistently,” said captain John Tavares. “I don’t know what else we need in front of us to motivate us.”
“Everyone’s got to take a look in the mirror and we’ve got to be better. That’s unacceptable,” said veteran Jake Muzzin, this group’s spiritual barometer. “We’ve got to find the urgency, the passion, the love of the game, the love to compete for each other. All that needs to come.
“I don’t know why that’s not there.”
The only sound you could hear in the dressing room after the final buzzer sounded was the scratch of tape being ripped off shin pads. There were plenty of long faces as players walked single file towards the bus.
When you’re playing in a passionate Canadian market and things aren’t going well, it can feel like the world is closing in on you.
Perhaps that explains why Toronto just seemed so tentative. And fragile. The Leafs were given a power play before the game was three minutes old and failed to generate anything. Then Crosby completely took the game over and helped Pittsburgh build a 5-0 lead, leaving his team a stress-free final 30 minutes to simply run out the clock.
This is not what you’d expect for a Leafs team that gave up three goals in the third period during Sunday’s loss to the Sabres and holds only a two-point advantage on Florida for the final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division.
Truth be told, they went down without a fight, and that’s why some kind of response needs to be summoned with Pittsburgh travelling to Scotiabank Arena to complete the home-and-home on Thursday.
“We have to make a decision here of what we want to be as a team because we’re going to run out of games,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe.
He didn’t mince words after watching his team fail to even generate a high-danger scoring chance in the first period. In fact, Keefe peeled the paint off the walls with a spirited talk during the first intermission and then watched his players turn a 2-0 deficit into a 5-0 deficit over the next 13 minutes.
They were completely outclassed on specialty teams. The Penguins went 3-for-3 on the power play while killing off four penalties, including a 5-on-3 that lasted 79 seconds and saw the Leafs use five forwards.
“If you had special teams on your bingo card of things that are hurting our group, then you’re happy today,” said Keefe. “Get that one filled.”
The issues have been many during a stretch where Toronto has won just four of its last 18 games in regulation. That’s an important stat, too, since regulation wins are used as the first tiebreaker in the standings and the Panthers hold a 26-23 edge.
The Leafs seem ill-prepared, or unwilling, to dig in when a game gets difficult. They had trouble generating anything from the middle of the ice against Pittsburgh and basically folded the tent once they fell behind.
“I think what’s happening here as the injuries have piled up and as the schedule has gotten harder and the league has gotten harder, the time of the year and how desperate and how urgent things are, I think more and more issues are coming up with our group,” said Keefe. “In terms of some of our habits and the details that are lacking. That’s where the team really has to grow. The skill is there, but the other part of it has to be there.
“Without that foundation you don’t have a chance.”
There was a crispness and sense of urgency missing.
The gap between a true Stanley Cup contender in Pittsburgh and a struggling team with fading Stanley Cup aspirations was evident from the get-go. And this doesn’t look like a problem that can be solved by Kyle Dubas with a trade or two before Monday’s deadline.
Instead, they need to look for answers internally.
“I think it’s just finding a way to get outside your comfort zone. Finding another level that maybe you’re not sure that you even have,” said Tavares. “I think it’s just part of what makes winning hard. I’ve only been so far and I’m trying to find it myself.”
There are now 21 games remaining in the regular season and the possibility of missing the playoffs grows more real with each subpar performance.
The Leafs still have three games against Tampa, two versus Florida and a visit to Boston to contend with. They were viewing this two-game set with Pittsburgh as a chance to see where they’re at entering the stretch drive.
“It’s going to be a really, really good test for us,” Matthews said before puck drop.
They didn’t measure up.
Not even close.