Maple Leafs relying too heavily on skill during rough patch

Buffalo jumped out to a three goal lead and Lehner did the rest making 43 saves.

•Matthews, Marner briefly reunited
•Early deficit too much for Toronto to climb out of
•Teams are creeping up on the Maple Leafs in the playoff picture

TORONTO – They amount to Mike Babcock’s nuclear option.

The sight of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner playing together seems to send a shot of excitement through Leafs Nation, but it only comes in the desperate moments when the team badly needs offence.

And so it was with mixed emotions that Nos. 34 and 16 found themselves lining up together for a faceoff midway through Saturday’s dispiriting 3-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres. They were sent out for a spark.

A hope and a prayer.

“We both kind of play the same way – a lot of speed,” said Marner. “We like to move the puck around and try and find open space. When we get out there together we try to make the most of it.”

This particular reunion lasted all of two shifts.

It was enough for Marner to draw a penalty and score on the ensuing power play, prompting the coach to return his lineup to the one featuring more balance.

Babcock’s preferred method of forward deployment sees his offensive weapons spread across three lines. The Leafs boast enough skilled personnel to have success with that method, but it generally requires them to stack effective offensive zone shifts on top of one another – with each trio passing the baton to the next like a gold-medal-worthy relay team.

When that doesn’t happen?

Everything breaks down. You get caught chasing the game, and in a worst-case scenario like Saturday, you find yourself down 3-0 before the first intermission.

“We’re a team that when we’re getting on the cycle, you know we’re dangerous all the time,” said Marner. “I think that’s what we’ve got to stick to.”

It’s a difficult thing to do consistently.

The Leafs have been a little less crisp over their recent stretch – winning just twice in the last eight games dating back to before the all-star break – and find themselves trying to get back to the fundamentals that brought success in November and December.

“You’ve got to get in people’s way, you’ve got to break out, you’ve got to get a piece of people,” said defenceman Connor Carrick. “It’s the same thing every night. The challenge of the NHL is there’s 82 games and we’ve got to do it every one.”

Then, he really cut to the heart of the matter.

“We’ve got a lot of talent in this room, but not the talent just to – and these are the coach’s words – I mean we just don’t have the talent to roll it up every night, go up and down the ice and shoot it and hopefully we score more than the other team,” said Carrick. “I mean we might. We’ve got dynamic forwards, the D-men can move, but it’s just not a winning brand (of hockey).”

As Babcock is fond of saying: It’s better to feed your family on certainty rather than hope.

When the Leafs control the puck they’re awfully tough to beat. Against the Sabres, they let the Sam ReinhartJack Eichel-Evander Kane trio get the best of them early – with Kane scoring twice and Reinhart once during a 14-minute stretch.

That start hinted at a lack of proper preparation, according to Babcock.

“I think we just needed to compete more,” said Matthews. “We weren’t really winning 50-50 battles down low. They were able to kind of pick our pockets, create second opportunities, get to pucks quicker in our D-zone.

“So they were able to create more offence and kind of put us back on our heels.”

It left the Leafs with no choice but to conjure every trick they could. That included those Zach Hyman-Matthews-Marner shifts, and a brief look at a Carrick-Morgan Rielly defence pairing, and a general onslaught in the Sabres zone.

“We’ve got a lot of talent in this room, but not the talent to just roll it up every night, go up and down the ice and shoot it and hopefully we score more than the other team.”

The shots were 31-13 for Toronto over the final 40 minutes. The stout Buffalo defenders simply collapsed around Robin Lehner and largely kept the skilled Leafs boxed out.

“Everyone looks at the shots: ‘Oh, look at the shots,”’ said Carrick. “Well, you play to win the game. They had three [goals] in the first and you can’t spot teams that because they can just sit back and say: ‘OK, come at us.’”

The games are getting tougher. The pressure is mounting.

“I think the league is growing right now,” said Carrick. “I just think the teams are playing harder. That St. Louis game (on Thursday) was a hard game, guys were playing hard. Teams are coming to play us – we’re in a playoff spot. Teams are coming to hunt.

“You’re playing a playoff team when you come to play our team.”

For the moment that remains a true statement.

The Leafs were holding down the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference on Sunday morning by virtue of the fact they had played two fewer games than Philadelphia. The list of teams creeping up on them is growing: Tampa, Florida and the New York Islanders, who visit Air Canada Centre on Tuesday.

The remedy to their troubles isn’t more even-strength shifts featuring Marner and Matthews.

When that materializes it’s a sure sign of trouble.

“If you get prepared and compete hard, you have a lot of success,” said Babcock. “If you don’t? This is a good lesson for us.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.