Maple Leafs learning to rid dressing room of doubt

Auston Matthews scored his 25th goal of the season and the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Dallas Stars.

TORONTO – Even as the Toronto Maple Leafs continue to push toward the playoffs, they are trying to expunge something harmful from the dressing room.


It appears when they get ahead in games, which is often. It appears when they’re trying to polish off a big victory. There were signs of it Tuesday even as backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney delivered 16 third-period saves in a 3-1 win over the Dallas Stars.

“We did a couple mistakes in the beginning of the season and we’re kind of scared to do them again,” explained veteran winger Leo Komarov, still trying to catch his breath after playing 2:50 of the final 3:53.

“All in all, we’ve turned it into something it’s not,” said coach Mike Babcock. “It’s just a game. Just play like the game’s tied and go get the next one. Just don’t be conservative, don’t back up, don’t protect anything, just play the damn game. When it goes bad for you, you start making it a bigger deal than it is.

“It’s no big deal, just play.”

There is a fine line to be negotiated and the Leafs are still getting acquainted with the delicate balance.

They looked a lot better in closing out the Stars than they did in Monday’s game at Brooklyn – where Toronto abandoned all defensive zone structure while blowing a late lead and losing 6-5 to the Islanders – but you get the feeling there are still some mental demons for the group to overcome.

It’s a direct byproduct of the eight times they’ve lost a game already when leading after 40 minutes this season.

This is not necessarily just a problem of youth and it’s certainly not one borne out of negligence.

If anything, they’ve been victimized by going into a shell rather than getting too carried away offensively. Entering Tuesday, the Leafs were the NHL’s seventh-best team in shot attempts when tied in games, ninth-best when trailing, and 18th-best when ahead.

Brimming with more offensive talent than most opponents can handle, Babcock is actually imploring his players to put the pedal to the floor even when they’ve already scored enough goals to win.

“I don’t want us to be careful at all,” he said recently. “Your best defence is when you have the puck in the O-zone.”

It is much easier said than done, especially when you find yourself in the middle of a playoff race and have already left points on the table.

The learning curve, in the words of rookie Auston Matthews, has seen the Leafs players search for “that spot where you’re not cheating [for offence], but you’re not just going back and letting them pick up speed – kind of playing scared, I guess.”

He saw some positive steps in the victory over Dallas.

They were able to establish a cycle down low and get some looks at extending their lead after Nikita Zaitsev made it 3-1 with a third-period goal on a 5-on-3 power play. Sure, they allowed five shots against over the final five-plus minutes but they were shorthanded almost the entire time – first killing off a Connor Carrick penalty and then seeing Antti Niemi go to the bench for an extra attacker.


The fact this has even become an issue speaks to the kind of charmed season it’s been to this point.

Toronto has scored the opening goal in 30 of 52 games and spent 1,048 total minutes ahead already – trailing only Washington, Minnesota, San Jose, and Columbus, according to

On Tuesday, rookie Mitch Marner registered his 46th point with an assist – giving him one more than Nazem Kadri’s team-leading total from last season. Matthews also scored his 25th to stay well on pace to break Wendel Clark’s franchise rookie record of 34.

Collectively, they jumped back into the fire by successfully protecting a lead over the final 50 minutes of the game. It had been a point of emphasis during a Tuesday morning meeting – “A lot of video,” said Matthews. “Just small things” that they could put directly into practice.

“You’ve just got to make sure that you know what the time is on the clock, you’ve got to know what type of game you’re in,” said Marner. “Obviously, if it’s a rush game, turning it over in the neutral zone is going to screw everyone over, so it’s just making sure we’re playing right and smart and we’re not sitting back too much when we get in the O-zone.”

There were a couple white-knuckle moments but they survived. The Leafs pulled alongside Ottawa for second in the Atlantic Division in the process.

Stiffer tests await and there is some doubt still deal with.

“When you’ve got the lead, the other team pressures you really hard,” said Komarov. “I think everybody was nervous. We didn’t play that good in the third. … Every guy is a little bit shaky.”

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