If it looks like a slump and acts like a slump, it’s probably fair to say it is one.
Even if the Toronto Maple Leafs have found a way to win some games during their first prolonged funk of the season.
Outplayed by the Ottawa Senators in a 5-2 loss on Saturday at home, the Leafs fell to 3-4-0 in their past seven games – a stretch during which they’ve been outscored 26-16 despite putting nine past two struggling goaltenders in New Jersey and Columbus to start the month.
While Toronto is still ahead of the seven-points-every-six-games pace needed to make the playoffs thanks to a 7-2-1 start, game-by-game they’re frittering away key points and falling closer to bubble team territory.
And there were plenty of long faces in the dressing room Saturday after the team’s fourth poor performance in a row.
“I just don’t like to lose,” said defenceman John-Michael Liles, who was clearly angry when he spoke with media after the game. “It’s frustrating.”
Why the slide?
The Leafs issues of late are many, but the ones coach Ron Wilson continues to harp on are their inability to make simple, safe plays and put pressure on the opposition using their speed.
The trend has often meant sitting back and coughing up early leads.
Their past two games are perfect examples. Toronto was lucky to pull out a 3-2 shootout win in St. Louis on Thursday after taking a 2-0 lead in the first period and then being outshot 32-8 in the game’s final 45 minutes.
Two nights later, they allowed a tired Ottawa team to mount a comeback despite getting three chances on the power play early in the second period.
That loss was Toronto’s fifth this season when scoring the game’s first goal.
“We didn’t have a killer instinct,” Wilson said. “Again, like in St. Louis, we backed off a little bit … That’s what we’re going to have to figure out: How to push the pace for 60 minutes and develop that kind of instinct to keep pushing a team down.”
Scoring dries up
The list of Leafs who are struggling is growing longer by the game. Most glaringly, Toronto hasn’t gotten a goal from a forward on the second, third or fourth line in its last four games.
Mikhail Grabovski’s line, in particular, has been invisible on too many nights after all three members had career years last season.
Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin are on pace for 48, 45 and 29 points after putting up 58, 62 and 57 a year ago.
The third and fourth lines, meanwhile, have been silent of late after scoring seven times in nine games to start the season.
Northeast lead slipping
The Leafs still cling to first in their division with 21 points, although their recent losses also have them only five points from last in the Northeast Division.
With seven of their next 10 games coming on the road and many of them against tough defensive teams – including Phoenix and Nashville on Tuesday and Thursday – Toronto is entering one of the toughest stretches of its schedule.
If the Leafs continue to play as they have their last seven games, they could easily give up more ground since Boston, Buffalo and Montreal have all picked up their play of late.
Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, however, said he remains confident they will find a way to start playing well on a consistent basis.
“It’s learning how to win,” Phaneuf said. “Building a winning culture and I think we’re on our way there. But we’re still learning.
“It’s not from lack of preparation or from not being focused … We’ve been guilty of [letting up]a little bit too much lately and we’re going to have to keep instilling that into our room.”