TORONTO — It all depends on what you want to believe.
Either the Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t quite the contender they’ve been made out to be — going a pedestrian 9-9-2 since William Nylander rejoined the lineup on Dec. 6 — or they’ve run into a patch of bad luck here and are just a few bounces away from turning back into an offensive juggernaut.
There’s no doubt where the players and head coach Mike Babcock stand in this discussion.
They kept a stiff upper lip in the face of Sunday’s 4-2 loss to the Arizona Coyotes, the sixth time in the last seven outings at Scotiabank Arena where the Leafs were beaten.
“Tonight we played hard, I thought we had the puck a lot,” said Babcock. “I didn’t think we had a lot of puck luck, to be honest with you. We had lots of attempts. I liked a lot of the things we did.”
“I think we controlled a lot of the play,” added John Tavares. “I liked the approach of the team; the patience, the positive attitude on the bench. I thought we were just kind of staying with it. I mean I counted three posts — I don’t know if there was more than that — so obviously it’s a game of inches, it’s small fractions here and there.”
It was a game where the Leafs controlled wide swaths of play, particularly in a first period where they out-attempted Arizona 26-10 at even strength. Only a lack of finish and some solid goaltending from Darcy Kuemper kept Toronto’s lead to 1-0.
There has been a running theme to that, with Nylander sitting at one goal in his 20 games, and Auston Matthews only having one to show for his last 13, and Nazem Kadri and Patrick Marleau weathering their own dry spells as well.
Matthews finished with another 10 shot attempts against his hometown Coyotes, but couldn’t get one past Kuemper.
“We generated some chances,” said Matthews. “He made some good saves and, at the same time, they made some good plays by boxing out guys and keeping us away.”
Mitch Marner, who has done nothing but score goals for the past month, had three high-quality looks in the first period alone. He was dancing on his edges and finding the high-danger areas.
The Coyotes showed some determination, too, pulling ahead in the second period and responding quickly after Tavares scored his 30th early in the third to bring it back to 2-2. Vinnie Hinostroza found a rebound and snuck it behind Frederik Andersen for the winner, with Lawson Crouse adding an empty-netter.
Truth be told, it was one of those games that wouldn’t raise much alarm at all in these parts if it could be removed from the context of the recent stretch. Sometimes you play pretty well and fall one shot short, right?
“I think tonight more than some other nights over the past couple weeks there was a lot of good things,” Tavares reasoned. “I think we controlled a lot of the play, really other than them having four power plays and then probably two or three shifts after we tied it in the third [where] they had the momentum.”
The days ahead could still be a challenge, with only Wednesday’s visit from Washington to play before an extended all-star break. There are some frayed nerves in the city after the Leafs set a high bar through the first two months before starting to stumble.
They are missing Jake Gardiner, who is out with back spasms, and Andreas Johnsson, who suffered a concussion on a heavy hit from Coyotes defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson during Sunday’s game.
Logic suggests the power play will eventually kick back into gear given all of the offensive talent on the roster. The Leafs have the NHL’s fifth-best score-adjusted Corsi since Dec. 6, according to naturalstattrick.com, and are just days removed from beating the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning on the road.
They are in the mud, results-wise, but it doesn’t look the process is overly flawed. And there certainly isn’t a sense of panic inside the dressing room.
“I think we’re going through some adversity as a team,” said Matthews. “It just seems like night after night these little things are costing us, costing us goals and end up costing us important points.”
“If we can stay with it, I like where we’re going,” added Tavares. “You’ve just got to embrace it. Obviously, it’s not what we want, it’s not the results we want, but we’ve got a quality team. We’ve proven that already the majority of the season.”