TORONTO – It was telling that when Mitch Marner was asked about the impact of his coach, Sheldon Keefe, publicly taking the Toronto Maple Leafs to task in the wake of Tuesday’s lethargic 5-2 loss in Pittsburgh, he flipped focus instead to the equally blunt words of Jake Muzzin.
Muzzin comes bearing a ring and hard truths, which are best heard after an embarrassing loss.
The letter-less leader challenged every man in that dressing room to stare at their own reflection. He called for tangibles like finishing checks and quick zone exits. He pleaded for intangibles like urgency and passion. Muzzin suggested “getting mad at yourself for not performing the right way.”
Marner watched Muzzin’s candid soliloquy on a screen after the fact. And agreed.
“I saw Muzzin — he said it great. He’s very chill with us when he thinks we’re doing well, but when we need it, he’s there to tighten everyone up and speak out and speak his mind. That’s something you need every once a while,” Marner said Wednesday, after the Leafs wedged a battle-drill session between their home-and-home with the Penguins. “We know our work ethic hasn’t been there, and it’s been unacceptable.”
Auston Matthews, the NHL’s leading goal-getter, echoed that sentiment.
“As other teams have elevated, we obviously haven’t,” Matthews said. “We realized that the last couple games we haven’t been competing hard enough.
“Pittsburgh, they’ve established a winning culture, a championship culture. I mean, it wasn’t all easy for them, obviously. It’s hard. It’s supposed to be. This is obviously a challenging test for us, and something that hopefully we can take out of it and move forward positively.
“We need to answer the bell.”
After consecutive stinkers in Buffalo and Pittsburgh, Thursday’s rematch against the Penguins doesn’t feel like just another game. The trade deadline looms, a combustible fan base got #FireDubas trending during Tuesday night’s debacle, and something feels amiss in Leafland as the local heroes have failed to take advantage of some mediocre play by their closest competitor, the Florida Panthers.
Fragile is the word that pops to mind.
The disease has not been easily isolated.
A stretch of subpar netminding from Frederik Andersen, who copped to a battle between the ears when he’s between the pipes but will still get Thursday’s start.
A long-term injury to Morgan Rielly that an already-thin defence corps has struggled to compensate for.
A porous penalty kill.
A parade to the LTIR that means no diehard Leafs fan needs to Google what LTIR stands for.
Some atrocious third periods. Some sloppy first minutes.
A dearth of bottom-six contribution that prompted Wednesday’s trade of gritty prospect Mason Marchment for the more NHL-ready Denis Malgin.
Keefe resorted to gallows humour by suggesting one could fill an entire bingo card of various ways the Leafs have uncovered to underwhelm.
“It’s been a little bit different each night,” Keefe said. “We need to make a decision that the time is now and it’s important. You need to rise to the occasion.
“Our guys have pride, and they don’t want to have the results that we’ve had.”
That the Leafs awoke Wednesday still in a playoff spot despite this mess is a slight illusion. Among Eastern Conference clubs, Toronto ranks 10th in points percentage (.574), and Florida holds two games in hand.
Where the frustration curdles in a nagging sense that the sum has failed to equal the high-octane parts. Most of the individual stat lines look fine if not dang impressive.
When the solutions aren’t easy, players and coaches retreat to the basics.
Win a puck battle.
That was the theme of Wednesday’s practice, as Keefe pulled William Nylander aside to stress the importance of him to remain engaged through every shift.
And that’s how Marner — notably this season’s highest-salaried player in hockey ($16 million) — handled a string of questions about outside pressures and a fan base beginning to fume.
“It’s just hockey. I mean, we’re not really frustrated, I don’t think, at all. We all know we have the skill, but we don’t have the work ethic every single night, every single guy buying in,” Marner said. “We’re the ones playing on the ice. We’re the ones in this locker room every day and seeing each other. For us, it’s just making sure we’re keeping our moods the same way we’ve been all year, and that’s light and fun and just enjoying each other’s presence. When we’re doing that, that’s when we’re at our best.
“We know we need to change our work ethic. We know we need to be better with that.”
It’s all on the line these days.