Maple Leafs' grip on North Division slipping after recent string of losses

Drake Batherson scored his 10th and 11th goals of the season and goalie Joey Daccord picked up his first career NHL victory as the Ottawa Senators defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3.

It was Paul Maurice who put forward the theory that you’re never more than two weeks away from turning euphoria into a bout of public panic in the North Division.

The Toronto Maple Leafs covered the distance in just 11 days.

You’d have trouble believing this was the same team that recently waltzed out of Edmonton with a nine-point division lead after watching it lose 4-3 to the Ottawa Senators on Sunday night -- giving it a fifth loss in six games since reaching that high-water mark.

“We’ve lost more than we want in the past week,” said Zach Hyman. “We’ve had defensive breakdowns.”

They saw sloppy breakouts become goals against during back-to-back weekend losses but got goalie’d by Connor Hellebuyck earlier in the week and dropped two close games in Vancouver prior to that.

This is why Maurice’s theory holds water: Things don’t have to go all that bad for them to appear much worse in a schedule played entirely within the division, especially when sequences of nine games in 16 nights is considered normal.

That’s not to make excuses for the Leafs. It’s just the truth.

“I think that we’ve done enough to win, but in this league doing enough sometimes isn’t good enough,” said Hyman. “You have to go out there and you have to dominate and you have to win games because hockey is about bounces -- sometimes you get ‘em, sometimes you don’t -- but if you play really well like we did in that Edmonton series then you don’t have to worry about the bounces.”

The Leafs got exactly what they deserved at Canadian Tire Centre, where the rested Senators started stronger, took advantage of turnovers to build a 4-1 lead and survived a feverish final 10 minutes to get surprise starter Joey Daccord his first career NHL victory.

Toronto initially looked like it left its legs on the tarmac after taking the unusual step of flying to Ottawa on Sunday morning, rather than following Saturday’s 5-2 loss to Winnipeg at home. Sheldon Keefe indicated that it was a decision made in part because it gave players a break from the NHL’s stringent travel protocols while providing them another night in their own beds as the clocks changed for Daylight saving time.

You’d have to imagine the organization’s sports science department had some compelling data to support the plan as well.

But it was unique enough that T.J. Brodie said it was a first in his 694-game NHL career, and it didn’t meet unanimous approval inside the dressing room. Some time-worn routines were disrupted by the same-day travel.

“Felt fine. Felt really good actually,” said Mitch Marner, when asked for his thoughts. “I mean I think the group was kind of hot and cold about it.”

They were greeted by a cold shower when Brady Tkachuk turned a Travis Boyd back pass into a 1-0 lead and Ryan Dzingel made it 2-0 just seven seconds later. That spelled the end of Michael Hutchinson’s night as the backup was replaced by Frederik Andersen.

What stood out most when the Leafs swept the three games in Edmonton by a combined 13-1 score was how connected they played and how little quality they gave up. Some of the details have been dulled.

Drake Batherson’s goals 53 seconds apart were the product of some nice work from his linemates, especially a gorgeous Tim Stützle feed, but they also came after Jake Muzzin failed to clear the Leafs defensive zone on the penalty kill and Morgan Rielly couldn’t get it out at 5-on-5.

“The last couple games you noticed it,” said Brodie, referencing the sloppy exits. “It’s a matter of being patient. Sometimes when the frustration builds up you might try to do too much and that’s where it continues just to pile up.”

They still lead the North Division with 40 points, but the Winnipeg Jets are only four points back and are scheduled to play three times before Toronto’s next action against Calgary on Friday night.

The Leafs grip has slipped.

They were already framing this four-day break in the schedule as a positive because it comes with a rare opportunity to rest and practice. When last they had something like it at the beginning of February, they returned with a 7-1-1 stretch.

“We’ve been playing a lot of hockey lately,” said Auston Matthews. “I think it will just be nice to kind of reset and regroup as a team.”

“I think that we’re not worried about where we’re at,” added Hyman. “We know how good we can be and it’s just about regrouping this week and finding that again and pushing forward.”

They’ve certainly seen how quickly things can change.

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