BOSTON — Hockey seasons go in peaks and valleys, ups and downs. One day you’re unbeatable, the next day you can’t imagine winning another game.
The Buffalo Sabres are a great example right now. They won 10 straight. Now they’ve lost five straight.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, meanwhile, seem to be in a mode where they’ve decided a full 60 minutes of focused hockey is for the other teams. You know, the teams without all the fancy young forwards. Along with that, they’ve also decided defending is for the less skilled. Competing hard, too.
The Leafs got away with such a laissez-faire performance at home Thursday against lowly Detroit, at least partially. They were so shoddy over 40 minutes they deserved to lose. They got a point out of it with a third-period comeback before losing in overtime.
Saturday night in the Massachusetts capital, they didn’t get away with a nearly identical effect.
“Some games you get your lunch handed to you, and that’s what happened,” that is how Leaf head coach Mike Babcock described an ugly 6-3 loss to the Boston Bruins.
Against a low-scoring Bruins team that was missing Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron and Jake DeBrusk, the Leafs delivered a second straight half-effort, again falling behind by three goals in the opening two periods.
The Bruins, battered as they are, aren’t the Red Wings. They made a lot out of a little to build that 3-0 lead, got a fourth goal early in the third from Danton Heinen and went on to win this one easily. They were determined and disciplined all night, cutting off Toronto’s long passing game and jumping on Leaf mistakes, of which there were plenty.
“That game’s got to piss you off,” said centre John Tavares. “We’ve got to get a little bite to our game.
“We talked about the importance of defending… but it’s a matter of going out and executing. We know we can put the puck in the net. But its important we don’t forget why we get those chances.”
The Leafs, winners of 20 of their first 28, have now lost two straight. More tellingly, they’ve now given up three goals or more in five straight games, and 11 goals in two games, a sure sign the talent is looking more towards putting up offensive numbers than defending.
That seems to happen in Boston more than anywhere else including last spring’s Game 7 loss at the TD Garden. The Leafs have now coughed up 18 goals in their last three visits and in all of those games, they started well but seemed to collapse from the net out once the competition got heated.
“You go into the second period down 1-0 on the road, it’s not the worst position to be in,” said centre Auston Matthews. “Then we just started taking penalties. They started out-working us big time, and we weren’t able to climb out of the hole we dug ourselves.”
This one got a little rough, with some nasty hits and three fights, a significant total for the NHL these days. Boston defenceman Charlie McAvoy sent Mitch Marner headfirst into the boards with a dangerous hit on the first shift of the game, and Marner went on to play his least effective game of the season.
The Bruins were later left steaming after Zach Hyman levelled McAvoy with the score 6-1 for the home side in the third period. McAvoy, in only his second game back after missing 20 games with a concussion, looked like he was dazed and skated straight to the Boston dressing room.
Bruins defenceman Matt Grzelcyk, who admitted he didn’t actually see the Hyman hit, crosschecked the Leaf forward in the neck and the two fought. Hyman got an interference major for the check that looked clean but perhaps a half-steamboat late. He could face the ire of league disciplinarian George Parros, although few know what Parros judges as worthy of supplementary discipline these days.
Hyman bolted for the team bus without commenting on his hit, which was, at the very least, unwise at that point in the hockey game. It got Bruins forward Chris Wagner so wound up he immediately ran at Morgan Rielly and delivered a high hit, creating a fight with 37-year-old Ron Hainsey. Hyman made the hit, and Rielly and Hainsey had to deal with the fallout.
So what did all this mean? Both teams claimed afterwards they’d stood their ground, David Backes seemed to call for the return of enforcers to “police” the game and no doubt some commentators will once again suggest the Leafs lack the toughness to be a top team.
“I didn’t think we got pushed around,” said Nazem Kadri, who objected to a blatant, uncalled crosscheck from Brandon Carlo in the second period and fought the much bigger Bruin.
For Boston, the six goals were a godsend, particularly with both Bergeron and DeBrusk out of the lineup. For the Leafs, the offence came too late, and Freddie Andersen didn’t stop much, giving up six goals on 27 shots before being yanked.
“I’m sure there’s a couple (Andersen) would like back, but at the same time, we were giving up two-on-ones and three-on-ones,” said Matthews, who certainly didn’t shine but still emerged with a goal and an assist. “They were getting around our net and getting free whacks at him, so that’s on us, too.”
William Nylander again went pointless in his second game since returning from a contract dispute. He played 16:30, managed three shots and had one very good scoring chance.
So far, he’s looked good in the open ice, but in traffic and along the boards, he looks like a player who’s been taking it easy in Sweden while the rest of the NHL has been playing hard for 10 weeks. So far, albeit with one practice under his belt, he’s done little to justify his new contract, and it could be a while before he catches up to the rest of the NHL.
This was the first game of a five-game road trip for the Leafs, who play the Hurricanes in Raleigh on Tuesday before a collision with the league-leading Lightning in Tampa Bay two nights later.
Job No. 1 before those games for Babcock will be convincing his stars to compete a harder, organizing more disciplined defensive play.
“I just think we haven’t competed well enough the last two games,” said Babcock.
With five wins and an overtime loss preceding Saturday night’s desultory effort, it would be hard to portray Toronto’s defeat as a trend. At the same time, to really be a top team like they’ve been most of the season, the Leafs need to find a consistent level of play and deliver it, particularly in challenging situations on the road.
Like in Boston, for example. They’re going to have to figure this place out, sooner or later.