When a team is blown out, as the Toronto Maple Leafs were on Saturday night, few questions are entirely off limits.
“How could this happen?” is, perhaps, the easiest to answer, because it’s almost always met with an “I don’t know.”
But when members of the Leafs were asked, in the wake of their ugly and embarrassing 7-0 loss at home to the Boston Bruins, if they had been fortunate to win as many games as they had playing the way they had recently, they didn’t flinch.
The answer wasn’t an “I don’t know.” It was “probably.”
“We talked about that the last game against Columbus,” Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson said after putting in his worst outing of the season against the Bruins. “Their goalie had a really bad game [in a 4-1 Leafs win] We got a little bit lucky.
“We didn’t play well. The big fear for us was just having some bad habits from that game and bringing them into this one. Which we did. Right now we just need to get out of it.”
Out of context, those hardly sound like the words from a player logging the third most ice time on a team that’s 9-4-1 and sitting second in the Eastern Conference.
But if there’s something truly encouraging about the Leafs after such an awful loss, it’s that they realize they need to be far better – regardless of how good their record says they are – in order to finally make the playoffs.
Leafs coach Ron Wilson spoke at length on that theme after Saturday’s game, opining in his typically caustic way that his players had been paying too much attention to positive reviews in the media and tried to be too cute in a “blue collar game” against the Bruins.
“Last year in the second half of the season, we started to find some success [against Boston]” Wilson said of a team that’s now handed his club two of its four regulation losses by a combined score of 13-2. “But we had a simple game. Now we’re kind of reading the papers and we’re this fancy dancy team.
“You can’t play the Bruins like that.”
Or many other teams not named the Blue Jackets these days either.
Part of the problem with looking too closely at any team’s record at the moment is simply one of small sample size. The Leafs may be near the top of the East and the Bruins at the bottom, but after Saturday’s game, it’s only a nine-point swing – a difference that could be wiped out by the time these two teams meet again at the end of the month.
That would mean a string of losses for Toronto, something Wilson and Co. have yet to run up against but which feels like may be on the way.
Down on the farm, meanwhile, the Toronto Marlies are mired in their own slump after a 5-1-1 start, and there’s a little bit of symmetry between the two situations. Neither team in the organization is as good as its early success or as bad as its ugly recent play.
And getting a little bit lucky or unlucky has been part of it.
With the Leafs taking Sunday off to regroup for Tuesday’s meeting with the Florida Panthers, it fell to Marlies coach Dallas Eakins to sum up both team’s struggles.
“This will be the message to our players,” Eakins wrote on Twitter, posting a picture of a quote he read in the hotel elevator after their own demoralizing loss on Saturday.
A paraphrase of a well-known line from Confucius, it read: “The glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time you fall.”
That’s the good news about a 7-0 loss: It’s just one in an 82-game season.
The bad news for the Leafs is that this one was in the works for a while, with a last-place penalty kill, the third most goals allowed and goaltending that’s been all over the map all cause for concern.
Fixing those areas will be the biggest part of any future rise or fall.
“I’ve got all the confidence in this group,” Gunnarsson said, “that we’re going to bounce back.”