TORONTO – High-volume hockey is a hell of a drug.
The side effects may include such symptoms as overconfidence, lack of preparedness, swings of emotion and casual zone exits.
However, as the Toronto Maple Leafs have shown us through 10 games, you can also get a pretty good buzz when this sport is played to its absolute offensive edge. Man, can it be fun.
The only trouble is that when things go wrong, as they did during a 6-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night, it tends to prompt some serious soul-searching.
"I think we’ve got to play more with pride," said Frederik Andersen, clearly frustrated after seeing his save percentage dip to .893.
"We’re not really near where we want to be, I don’t think," added Auston Matthews. "I think as we get further and further down the season, we’re not going to be able to score five or six goals in a game. So we’ve got to be able to win tight games – 2-1, 1-0, 3-2 – and we definitely need to clean things up defensively because our structure is pretty inconsistent right now."
What stood out most about those assessments is that they were larger in scope than just this one ineffective night. It’s almost like the Leafs believe they’ve lived too dangerously despite getting off to a tidy 7-3-0 start.
That gives us an interesting prism in which to view the expansive road still to travel.
We know these guys are going to score and will continue earning praise for doing so. Matthews has eight goals in 10 games and could become the first Leaf in nearly a quarter-century to chase down 50. Heck, even fourth-line centre Dominic Moore has three in six outings after potting another against the Hurricanes.
And yet, deep down, you get the sense they want to remake their image. Even with the four deepest offensive lines in hockey they want to show a little restraint.
"We’ve had in the beginning a lot of bounces, but now we need to work more and play better defence," said winger Leo Komarov. "If you look at the standings we’re doing OK. It’s still early, 72 more games."
The insinuation is that there’s still plenty of time for their luck to change.
It speaks to an offhand comment voiced by Los Angeles Kings defenceman Drew Doughty earlier this week: When he looks at the Leafs, he sees a team inching closer to contender status. But he also sees one with too many defensive shortcomings.
Had Doughty tuned in on Thursday night, his opinion wouldn’t have changed.
The Leafs were down 2-0 before the game was even three minutes old. It signalled that the next 57 minutes would be played under carnival-like conditions since Toronto never has a deficit too big, or a lead too large.
Matthews scored, Andersen delivered a save-of-the-year candidate while laying prone on his stomach and then Elias Lindholm immediately stretched Carolina’s lead to 3-1. All before the first intermission. In the second period, the Leafs managed to tie the game and surrender the eventual winner inside a span of eight minutes.
Back and forth they went, riding the see-saw.
"We didn’t compete," said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. "If you don’t skate and you don’t compete, you can forget all the … where you stand and any of that stuff. We didn’t work hard enough.
"We couldn’t fix one thing technically tonight because we didn’t work hard enough."
After three weeks, the Leafs are the curiosity of the league. They are first in goals for (4.3 per game) and 28th in goals against (3.6). They’ve produced high end puck possession metrics but are a bottom-third team in shots on goal against.
Far too many pucks are getting past Andersen and that’s at least partly on him. There’s been very little continuity on the third pairing and the tinkering will likely continue.
Some who work in the front offices of other teams legitimately believe Toronto can challenge for the Stanley Cup this season. There will be a greater number of others harbouring doubts.
"The Leafs? Boy, oh, boy," Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said before puck drop. "Their veteran additions [this summer] have been very good. Their young guys continue to get better, as young guys should in this league. [Patrick] Marleau still skates well, and Ron Hainsey can still skate, so they didn’t hurt themselves in that regard.
"I’m not going to say they are quicker, but they didn’t get any slower. And they’re playing faster with more comfort level in the system and the puck speed."
If nothing else, they get your attention when you walk inside Air Canada Centre.
Toronto might win 7-2 or 8-5. All three of their losses carry the same score: 6-3.
Plenty of chances, and goals, at both ends of the rink. At least in October. That’s still subject to change.
"I mean you can’t rely on Freddie to make these saves that he’s making every night and just hope that we get a chance the other way," said Matthews. "We’ve got to play well at both ends of the ice, and then that leads to more chances for ourselves. Tonight wasn’t really acceptable for our standard at all."
Alas, the standard is still being set.