Maple Leafs unable to step up against powerhouse Lightning

Cedric Paquette and Tyler Johnson both scored twice to help the Tampa Bay Lightning thump the Toronto Maple Leafs.

TORONTO — In search of an explanation for what happened here, we’ll turn to a voice from beyond the hockey world, because it wouldn’t sound very becoming for a serious hockey observer to trot out anything resembling an excuse for a poor performance.

So here goes: “I think one thing that we’re learning is it’s just really hard on your body. And mentally.”

That was Toronto Raptors general manager Bobby Webster, speaking earlier this year at a business luncheon about the impact of cross-continent travel on athletes and a schedule that includes as many as four games per week.

It seemed prescient while watching the Toronto Maple Leafs sleepwalk through a 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning — not just the top team in the NHL this season, but arguably the best of the last two decades.

Toronto returned from a swing through Western Canada on Sunday, after seeing the clocks moved ahead an hour for daylight savings. It concluded a stretch which saw them spend 20 days in hotels compared to 10 in their own beds while frequently bouncing between time zones.

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If they looked like they had no legs against the Lightning, it’s probably not a coincidence.

“People will tell you if you take a red-eye and you have to go to work the next day you’re just bad,” Webster said during the January panel discussion with Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas. “Vegas has been able to quantify it, the oddsmakers. So if you play back-to-back, the second game of the back-to-back, you automatically get docked two points on the [betting] line. So they’re saying ‘We just know, over the course of however many games we’ve studied, that whether you’re the Raptors or you’re Golden State or you’re San Antonio, you’re going to start off that next game down two in Vegas.’

“So I think that’s just an example probably objectively of why this stuff, we need to look at it.”

Now, the NBA is already way ahead in this department. It’s routine to see star players in that league, like Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard, sit out games in order to lessen their workload and maximize performance.

The Montreal Canadiens did the same with rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi for two games in California last week, citing “load management,” but that’s far from the norm. Tampa has already clinched a playoff spot and coach Jon Cooper said Monday he hadn’t yet considered resting regulars. Mike Babcock also deflected that question, saying: “We plan on doing everything we can to make the playoffs.”

If anyone was ever to introduce it as a regular practice in the NHL, the Leafs are a safe bet. They are at the forefront of the league’s use of sports science and performance, and Dubas acknowledged during that talk with Webster that he’s thought about it.

“I think it will become something that moves over to hockey in time,” he said.

Facing this return home, they did try to maximize sleep and recovery by flying back from Edmonton on Sunday morning rather than immediately after the game on Saturday night.

But over an 82-game regular season, sometimes there’s only so much you can do.

We are not yet at a point where Leafs coach Mike Babcock can freely acknowledge as much to reporters — not in a sport where players are celebrated for gutting their way through gruesome injuries, and not while coaching a team that has a less onerous schedule that many of its counterparts.

Still, Babcock did slyly hint they were in tough before the game against the Lightning when he was asked if he bought into the notion of teams struggling when returning from a western road trip: “I would if it was someone else coming off of one, but today I don’t at all. I think it’s just a great opportunity.”

The opportunity went up in smoke when Tyler Johnson and Anthony Cirelli tipped home shots from the high slot and then Johnson was wide open to score again after Frederik Andersen took a shot to the mask. Ondrej Palat made it 4-0 on a pinballing puck that last hit Auston Matthews before going in.

That prompted Babcock to pull Andersen for just the second time all season, granting him an extra 35 minutes of rest while backup Garret Sparks went in.

Matthews did score one highlight-reel goal to briefly spark thoughts of a comeback inside Scotiabank Arena, but it didn’t last. He was the most visibly frustrated player in the losing dressing room when the game mercifully ended.

“I consider it a wake-up call for us,” he said. “It was a measuring-stick game, that’s the best team in the league and we didn’t come ready to play and they pretty much just slapped us.”

As much as Babcock echoed that sentiment — “we were no good” — he did cancel a scheduled Tuesday practice. There was a time in this league when a coach would be looking to skate his players hard as punishment following a 6-2 loss to a division rival.

Down the hall, the Lightning had their own view on what transpired. They were given two tough games from Toronto earlier this season and saw something different this time around.

“We caught a tired team,” said Cooper. “They just came off the West Coast and they’ve got to play another game at home in a different time zone, and you’ve got to take advantage of that.”

It’s an easier observation to share publicly when you come out on the winning end.

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