NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There is a sense of urgency around the Toronto Maple Leafs after dropping three of their last four games while giving up 23 goals. It’s been their worst stretch in an otherwise encouraging season, and it’s arrived at a time the playoffs are coming into view.
But leave it to Nazem Kadri, a veteran of 552 games with the Maple Leafs, to bring some perspective amid the current state of concern around team.
“Oh this is nothing, this is nothing. I’ve been around for much darker days,” Kadri said before Tuesday’s game against the Nashville Predators. “We’re lucky to have the group that we have and the players that we have. We all stick together no matter what.”
After a rest day and a practice day, Mike Babcock was calling for an increased effort and better attention to defensive details. His team has fallen behind by at least three goals in each of the last four outings and found itself chasing the game.
It’s resulted in an average of 38.5 shots-against during this slide — many of them of the high-danger variety.
“Our biggest thing here in the last little while is we’ve given up way too much off the rush and we need a renewed commitment to playing better defensively,” said Babcock. “When you give up stuff off the rush it’s usually off turnovers, off losing your F3 or ‘D’ diving in.
“We need to clean up those areas, for sure, in order to feel better about ourselves and play better.”
They only have 10 games remaining before a first-round playoff matchup with Boston. Here in Nashville they’ll face a Predators team that’s been a little less than sum of its parts this season — sitting at 43-24-5 after winning the Presidents’ Trophy last year.
But they are still a dangerous outfit, especially inside the rocking Bridgestone Arena, and any visitor arriving here knows that the game can get away quickly if you’re not sharp.
“It’s going to be hard for us and it should be a lot of fun,” said Babcock. “The one thing about our group is the guys are all in and they’re all in all the time. Sometimes it doesn’t look like that because we don’t play as good, but they’re all in all the time.”
This feels like a major test for the Leafs following Saturday’s ugly 6-2 loss in Ottawa.
It marks the return of No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen, who watched backup Garret Sparks play against the Senators after allowing 14 goals on 62 shots in his three starts last week.
However, there’s an acknowledgement among the players that it’s a lot more than porous goaltending going on here. There’s been some honest dialogue in recent days — “brutally honest,” according to Kadri — because the level has slipped so far, so quickly.
“We’ve come a long way in that area,” said Babcock. “You need good leadership. In order to have good leadership, you need good players because good players are allowed to talk because they can do it themselves. And then you’ve got to have a belief in one another.
“I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve only had a few blips during the year is that we’ve been able to regroup and get back on track.”
“We’ve gone over video, we’ve had our meetings,” added defenceman Morgan Rielly. “Now it’s kind of up to us to make sure we do whatever we have to do to prepare, make sure we’re ready to play.”
It’s not so much that they’ve lost, but the way they’ve lost.
“It’s obviously been a little bit frustrating,” said Kadri. “But for us, I think we understand the group we have and how good we can be and the potential we have. Stretches like this, I feel like in the hindsight of things, makes you a better team.
“You know, you want to battle a little adversity at some point in the year and be able to overcome that to make your team stronger.”
It’s not an unreasonable thought — especially given that they’re fifth overall in NHL points percentage and still have a chance to claim home ice for the series against Boston. But it will require them to put an ugly week in the rear-view mirror quickly.
For Kadri, the longest-serving player in the organization, there’s still optimism because he doesn’t have to dig very deep in the memory bank to think of a time when things were much more bleak. He’ll appear in just his fourth playoff series during a nine-year career next month and was around for waffles on the ice, the 18-wheeler off the cliff, SaluteGate and the 30th-place finish in 2015-16, among other low points for the organization.
“This is an exciting time to be a Maple Leafs fan and a Maple Leafs player,” said Kadri. “We take pride in representing our city. We’re going to go out there and fight.”