TORONTO — Do the Toronto Maple Leafs need another defenceman? A top-six winger? More grit and gumption?
Every one of these debates will be moot if the Maple Leafs can’t get what they truly need: a save.
Just one or two more of those elusive things would’ve earned Toronto a point or two Saturday against the Vancouver Canucks — a team they should beat but could not beat this season. In large part because the Leafs dressed the second-best goalie both times.
Considering Toronto served up a stinker Wednesday against lottery-bound Buffalo, and considering its No. 1 goaltender had been granted a week off to clear his mind, this was no small test for Jack Campbell.
He was nervous going in and admitted as much.
Campbell and the Leafs outshot Thatcher Demko and the Canucks 38-29, mounted the edge in expected goals (4.12-3.23), but blew a third-period lead and lost 6-4.
A halt in the standings, as the red-hot Jeremy Swayman and Boston Bruins creep from the rear.
A blow to the confidence, as doubts fester between Campbell’s ears.
Toronto’s .876 save percentage ranks last in the league since Jan. 9.
Campbell has now surrendered four or more goals in each of his past four starts and nine of his past 15, shifting onus on the skaters in front of him to outscore their problems.
Thing is, they nearly did.
So much went right for the Maple Leafs, who rallied from a 3-1 deficit to take a 4-3 lead into the third.
John Tavares snapped his personal 14-game goal drought and his team’s seven-game power-play skid with one shot. Rookie Nick Robertson sniped his first career goal and will probably gift the puck to Mom. Auston Matthews re-seized the lead in the Rocket Richard Trophy race in a two-goal, eight-shot tour de force performance that had the barn chanting, “M-V-P!”
There was plenty to like.
And then there was the mystery box in the crease.
Without question, Jake Muzzin has left an elephantine hole on the Maple Leafs’ blueline. They could use a few more shot blocks and boxouts. They need to make their own net-front an uneasy place.
But tips and rebounds be damned, the netminder can’t give up five and expect to win.
The organization has tried throwing Campbell right back in the net after a soft start, and now its tried giving him a full week off that rough outing in Detroit to mentally reset.
“I don't know if it’s anything we can do for him at this point,” said Sheldon Keefe. The coach has been careful not to rip into Campbell, to stress improved defence in front of him. “Our focus has got to remain on helping both he and Petr [Mrazek] out as best we can.”
"Soupy's a gamer," Michael Bunting added. “We have all the faith in the world in him and are behind him."
That faith was reinforced by Kyle Dubas Friday, when the general manager shot down the notion that he might go goalie shopping before the March 21 trade deadline.
That faith is being tested, however, with every red lamp that burns on the back of Campbell’s neck and into his thoughts.
“I've been pretty hard on myself this year, and obviously it's snowballing a little bit,” Campbell said. “Not happy with giving up any goals ever, so it's not acceptable, but trying to have it roll off a little bit easier now. I know I got better for the team, and it's disappointing not getting the win when we played so well.”
As he continued, the goaltender vowed, twice, that he would claw his way out of this avalanche: “I promise I'll get out of it and get on a roll again.”
And again: “I’ll get it back. Promise I will.”
Campbell wasn’t speaking to reporters but rather through them. He’s promising his coach, promising his teammates, promising the 17,534 Torontonians hollering “Soooooup!” with every kick save.
Or maybe he’s simply promising himself, an attempt to speak excellence into existence.
Because this won’t turn around until Campbell himself believes he won’t suffocate under the self-assumed weight of it all.
“[The mental side of the game] is definitely something I feel like the rest of my life, I’ll always work on it. It’s so crucial,” Campbell said. “You know, some guys have it — they’re just kind of chill naturally. And for me, I'm learning.”
Fox’s Fast 5
• The Maple Leafs rallied around Wayne Simmonds’ 1,000th game and got “Wayne Train” T-shirts screen-printed for the occasion.
"The guys did a vote on the design, and pretty much it was unanimous that it was this one. It's awesome. It turned out great," Bunting said. "Growing up in Scarborough, pretty much anyone that's a hockey fan knows about Wayne Simmonds."
Nice touch by Keefe, putting out Simmonds for the opening face-off alongside fellow Toronto natives Bunting and Jason Spezza.
“He's tough to play against, man. He knows his role 100 per cent. He was fabulous on the power play in Philadelphia,” Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau said. “He was just a good player. But his toughness sort of over-ranked has good-playerness. If that’s even English.”
• As trade rumours engulf the Canucks, Boudreau insists there’s been zero discussion in his dressing room about breaking up the band. According to SportsClubStats.com, Vancouver still has an 18.4 per cent shot at making the playoffs. There are still more than two weeks to decide on the fate of J.T. Miller and the rest of the pieces that contenders covet from the roster.
“Unless he’s the best actor in the world, all I know is he cares about the Vancouver Canucks,” Boudreau said of Miller.
“The media thinks every Canucks player is getting traded. But, honest to God's truth, we haven't had one word said about it. Not one player has come up to me.”
• Nick Robertson certainly made good on his second-line audition with Tavares and Nylander, scoring his first NHL goal. But it was notable that Alexander Kerfoot replaced Robertson on that line for some key D-zone draws, and Spezza subbed in during an important O-zone draw with the outcome in the balance.
The coach’s trust isn’t there yet.
"We've been trying to get a sense of where he is at in his development and what he might be able to provide," Keefe said of the trial.
• Bo Horvat swatted away Auston Matthews’ Michigan attempt:
• Ondrej Kase (day-to-day) practised with the team Friday but was held out again Saturday. The kamikaze winger hasn’t played in a week now. He needed some tests, Keefe said, on an unspecified “upper-body” injury. The uncertainty around Kase’s ailment is concerning due to his concussion history.
"He got through practice [Friday] and felt good, but not in a position where he was going to play tonight, so they'll use the time to get a little more of a sense of what's happening," Keefe said.