Randy Carlyle gave the Toronto Maple Leafs the day off Wednesday, although no one would have blamed the head coach if he called a 9 a.m. practice and skated his players into the ice.
Then again, given how listless the Leafs looked in losing 5-1 to the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night, a rest was probably the right prescription for the team, even if they have some things to fix by their next game, Thursday at the Air Canada Centre against the New York Islanders. The Caps game was their second in as many nights and third in four, so working the players hard really doesn’t make any sense.
But talking to them hard might, as the Leafs’ problems are just as much mental as physical, a slipping work ethic in their last few games that made Tuesday’s embarrassment no surprise. The Leafs need to nip this quickly, as their two most likely playoff opponents are also in mini-funks and going into your first appearance in the NHL playoffs in nine years on a high is imperative.
Some Leaf fans may recoil in horror at the assumption they will get the four points they need to clinch a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but a fade to oblivion is not likely. Carlyle’s dedication to keeping his players’ minds on what it takes to succeed means the Leafs are a team that generally bounces back from bad outings, so a collapse to rival last season’s is not in the cards.
However, the Leafs do need to get the kinks out before they face either the Boston Bruins or Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs. Otherwise, they could slide to sixth and have to face the team nobody wants to see in the first round, the Capitals, who gave the Leafs a preview of what the postseason might be like with their eighth consecutive win.
The work for the Leafs starts in their own end, which means sophomore defenceman Jake Gardiner could find himself in the press box Thursday for Carl Gunnarsson, who missed the last two games with an undisclosed lower-body injury. While the sight of Alex Ovechkin turning Gardiner inside-out on a rush is one of the main images from the Capitals’ loss, it is more of a symptom of what is troubling Gardiner than the main reason for his potential banishment.
Like too many of his colleagues, Gardiner is too inconsistent defensively for Carlyle’s liking. The Leafs turned themselves around this season by embracing Carlyle’s defensive system but they have been slipping away from it in recent days.
In their last eight games, for example, the Leafs were outshot by a margin of 258-193. By itself, shots on goal is not necessarily a damning statistic. The foundation of Carlyle’s defensive system is that shots are okay as long as they come from the perimeter, the goaltender can see them and rebounds are quickly cleared.
But the Leafs are now giving up too many shots from the prime scoring areas. Goaltenders James Reimer (whose excellent work of late prevented disaster) and Ben Scrivens have to contend with second and third shots in succession rather than seeing the rebounds cleared.
At the other end of the ice, the forwards are not following up their shoot-ins with hard fore-checking, which lets the opposition get moving on those good scoring chances the Leaf goaltenders have to contend with.
So, the big clinching party is on hold. And there may be some white-knuckling ahead Saturday in Ottawa if the Leafs lose Thursday to the Islanders. Thanks to the loss to Washington, the Ottawa Senators are now only three points behind the fifth-place Leafs with a game in hand.
Slipping to sixth means drawing the Caps in the first round rather than the Habs or Bruins, who once looked invincible to the Leafs but are now vulnerable thanks to a few injuries. That in itself should be motivation enough to get back to the hard hitting at both ends of the ice.