Randy Carlyle hardly looked like a man whose team had just posted the franchise’s longest win streak in nearly seven years.
The Toronto Maple Leafs had won again, for the fifth time in a row, but their head coach had a few buts to offer up, as per usual.
The three-goal lead they jumped out to early on – playing on the road, against a Phoenix Coyotes team that has produced a lot of offence this year – was obviously good and another sign of how dangerous this Leafs team can be at its best.
But what happened after that point wasn’t.
“Well we’re playing better,” Carlyle said in summarizing the night, a 4-2 win. “But we’re making individual mistakes like turnovers with the puck and that’s showing a little bit of [struggling with the] pressure and a little bit of [being] lackadaisical between the ears. We’re not bearing down hard enough.
“We’ve got to learn how to manage the clock in a game. The end of a period, start of a period, put pucks in, do all those things. We seem to want to make life more difficult for ourselves.”
The difficulty in Monday’s win came right after Toronto went up 3-0. They had controlled the play reasonably well to that point, with two power plays, and a start that was, for the second straight game, one of their better ones on the year.
But after Carl Gunnarsson scored the third goal, it became the Jonathan Bernier show, as the Leafs netminder had to be terrific to keep his team out front. Phoenix finally broke through and scored early in the third, and the game then appeared headed for a wild finish until the Coyotes gifted Toronto another power play – one of six overall – and Leafs centre Nazem Kadri made it 4-1 with six minutes to play.
Between the Gunnarsson and Kadri goals, the Leafs were outshot 21-9 and continually either turned the puck over or backed off on the play, looking little like the team that played the first 25 minutes so well.
“Tonight we had some periods where we really sat back,” Gunnarsson told reporters afterward. “Bernie was great during those periods – he saved us a couple of times.”
“We had some turnovers tonight that were pretty juicy, and he definitely bailed us out,” added Jake Gardiner, who mixed some very good (a goal and assist) with a few ugly turnovers in a performance illustrative of his team’s. “He’s been great all year. I think this was probably one of his better games.”
The fact is the Leafs deserved to win the game, and they have actually played some of their best hockey this season in the last five or six outings. But you can also see what Carlyle’s kvetching about every night and empathize when he says he’s had a lot of sleepless nights.
It’s not even so much the win/loss record, but how they’re getting there.
Playing with a lead, for example, is one of the central weaknesses of this group, for example, and it’s up for debate whether you want to put that on the players or the coaching staff. According to hockeyanalysis.com, the Leafs generate 39 per cent of a game’s shots on goal when they’re leading, which is ahead of only last place Buffalo, a team which rarely leads.
Last year, the Leafs were 28th in that stat during the regular season, which played out during the meltdown in Boston when they were outshot 13-1 after taking a 4-1 lead in the third period of Game 7.
Under Carlyle in his last four seasons in Anaheim, the Ducks were tied for 28th there, too, despite having some pretty solid teams filled with Stanley Cup vets in those years.
Late in Monday’s win, Carlyle called a timeout and told his players to simply loosen up and go play, but this still looks like a tight, disjointed bunch when they’re supposed to be protecting the house, so to speak.
Maybe that’s the result of an overemphasis on preventing turnovers and opting for the safe play? Maybe it’s some of the personnel decisions being made?
Or maybe it’s just in their heads?
Whatever the case, it’s become part of what defines this team, and not in a good way. There’s been a lot of talk from the team about needing to find an identity, but the truth is what they really need is to find far more consistency within games.
These last five wins have shown more of this group’s potential than the rest of their season to date, but this is still a team with a foundation built on things like Bernier facing 35+ shots many nights, Phil Kessel providing close to 40 goals, Tyler Bozak averaging more minutes than almost any other forward in the league and hoping like heck they can hang on when they’re ahead in games.
If they can play like they did early in their wins over decent teams like Montreal and Phoenix, they’ll probably continue to win a reasonable number of games here, enough that they’ll be right there in the playoff race until the end.
But if they can’t clean up what’s become their two most glaring weaknesses – team defence and protecting a lead – these win streaks are going to be more of an anomaly than anything.
That’s the identity of this team right now: They’re Jekyll and Hyde, both good and bad – and how things play out the next 31 games will determine which label sticks with the 2013-14 Leafs long term.
And Carlyle can see it, too, even during a five-game win streak that has the blue-and-white bandwagon filling up again.
“We feel that this group can continue to grow and play to a higher level,” Carlyle said. “But enough talking about it. Action speaks louder than words. We’ve got to continue to grow … we believe in this group. We believe we’ve got more, and I think they believe they’ve got more.”