TORONTO — Asked where he’d like to see improvement in the second half of the season, Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said one area would be the health of his team and making sure everyone is on the same page.
And that, quite frankly, begins in the crease.
Michael Hutchinson will make a third straight start Monday in place of injured No. 1 goalie Frederik Andersen and backup Garret Sparks when Toronto hosts the Nashville Predators.
"It probably exceeded (expectations) in some ways," Babcock said of his club’s 27-12-2 record through 41 games. "We did lots of really good things."
The Leafs sit tied with the Calgary Flames — Toronto has two games in hand — for second in the NHL’s overall standings, 10 points back of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who just happen to be their Atlantic Division rivals.
"We’re looking forward to the second half and we’ve just got to keep getting better," Babcock said following Sunday’s practice. "Getting everybody up to speed is the No. 1 priority for us — right from our goaltending, to our back end, to our players up front."
While Toronto has exceptional firepower with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares, not to mention defenceman Morgan Rielly’s breakout offensive season, the goaltending remains the biggest immediate concern despite Hutchinson’s 28-save shutout in a 5-0 victory over the listless Vancouver Canucks on Saturday.
Andersen went through his second full practice Sunday as he continues to work back from a groin injury that bothered him most of December.
"Coming back from the Christmas break, it didn’t feel great," Andersen, who is 20-9-1 with a .923 save percentage and a 2.50 goals-against average, said of an injury that will force him to miss a fifth straight game Monday. "We had hoped it would settle down a little bit.
"When it didn’t, it wasn’t alarming, but it was something we needed to take care of before it got out of hand."
Sparks, meanwhile, joined the group for some light drills after suffering a concussion following consecutive shots off the mask from a teammate in Wednesday’s on-ice session.
William Nylander is believed to be the culprit.
"It was cumulative," Sparks said. "Both (shots) were the same individual. It’s humorous, and it’s not. He feels bad. It’s never happened before so I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.
"Never in a million years would he try to do something like that to me (on purpose). No hard feelings."
Sparks didn’t have a sensitivity to light in the wake of the concussion, but also wasn’t himself.
"Just not being present," said Sparks, who finished the practice in question and spoke with reporters before self-diagnosing himself later in the day. "Once that started to go away and I started to feel more like myself, I knew things were improving."
Sparks, who has never had a concussion at any level, said he regrets not immediately letting trainers know he was feeling off before the second shot rattled his cage.
"This is my first time going through something like that," he said. "The more I evaluated how I felt as the day went on, I started to realize things weren’t getting any better."
Andersen and Sparks were in the locker-room following Saturday’s win waiting to congratulate Hutchinson, who has been thrust into the spotlight after being acquired from Florida on Dec. 29 in a move aimed at shoring up Toronto’s depth.
A veteran of more than 100 NHL games, the Barrie, Ont., native was toiling in the American Hockey League and unsure of where his career would go next prior to the deal that shipped him to Toronto.
"It’s never fun watching, but a game like (Saturday) night helps," Andersen said. "Hutch was great."
Rivals at the top of a number of goaltending categories in the AHL last season, Sparks said Hutchinson has already been a positive influence in his recovery.
"He’s shared his experiences with head injuries and what he’s done to come back," said Sparks, who is 6-2-1 with a .905 save percentage and a 3.01 GAA. "I’m learning a lot from him just watching him play and his demeanour and how he carries himself."
Zach Hyman, meanwhile, also took part in his first full practice Sunday after suffering an ankle sprain in New Jersey on Dec. 18.
The winger felt he was fine to play the following game, but was pulled out of the lineup by Toronto’s medical staff after an MRI revealed the injury was more serious that previously thought.
"They’re protecting you from yourself," Hyman said. "For me, I’ll go out there and I’ll play through whatever I can."