With 13 games to go in the regular season, the Maple Leafs are hanging on to a playoff position in spite of themselves. They aren’t third in the NHL’s Atlantic Division on merit. They are third because the Florida Panthers pretty much lose in lockstep.
Toronto returns home against Tampa Bay on Tuesday after a California trip, in which it lost to three opponents with losing records. The Maple Leafs were outscored 8-3 by San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim – three of the league’s worst offensive teams. And one of their three goals should have been negated by an offside.
As the postseason approaches, there are but a few certainties. There will be much talk about “the process.” A lot of conversations about looking in the mirror. And discussion about the need to play a full 60 minutes. About having to bring more energy. About belief in the group.
All of these things reflect badly on a team about to head into its 70th skirmish. That is the definition of scuffling. Of a team on the hobble to the finish line rather than a sprint. Of a team that has more questions than answers.
Perhaps there will be a surprise. Before these most recent defeats came a string of smashing victories, likely the best three of the entire season.
It is hard to predict what happens next. The Maple Leafs are an unpredictable bunch that has rarely been able to escape tumult. Their defence and goaltending are leaky, but their offence is excellent. Then their defence buckles down and their offence is non-existent.
Sheldon Keefe and his players worked overtime to find positives to say on a road trip that went badly. At worst, they should have won two of three. Instead, they collected a single point by forcing overtime against the Kings.
“I thought it was a pretty even game all the way through,” Keefe said Thursday. “It’s a game that really could have gone either way. We’re happy to get one point. We could have gotten two, but [there is] not a lot to complain about for us as a group.”
The swing west was an opportunity to gain traction at a critical time. Instead, Toronto flew home on Saturday slightly worse than when it left. The Panthers inched two points closer in the division standing. They now trail Auston Matthews and Co. by just three.
There are great stories all around the NHL right now. The Philadelphia Flyers have won nine in a row and sit atop the Metropolitan Division with the Washington Capitals. After a terrible start, the Minnesota Wild entered Sunday only a point removed from a wild-card berth in the Western Conference.
The Oilers won four of their past five games to climb ahead of the Golden Knights and into first place, at least temporarily, in the Pacific Division. Edmonton is 7-0-1 in the second game of back-to-backs, and Mikko Koskinen stopped 97 of the 99 shots he saw this week. Vegas played in Calgary on Sunday night, and then plays in Edmonton on Monday.
The Flames, Canucks and Jets are among four teams battling for three playoff positions in the Western Conference. The Maple Leafs, on the other hand, spoke about being snake-bitten last week after losing to three opponents playing for only pride and perhaps roster spots next season.
“We’re all in this together,” Matthews said after Friday’s loss in Anaheim. “You play through the good and the bad and the adversity and, obviously, in the position that we’re in, there’s lots of critics and lots of stuff that comes with it.
“But I think in this room we’re headstrong, and it doesn’t matter what’s going to get thrown our way, we’re going to come out of it stronger. Obviously, it was not the road trip that that we really wanted. So, that’s on us. We’ve got to just build forward and put this aside, learn from it and be better.”
It is pretty late to be learning at this stage, and to be drowning in hockey speak.
Toronto’s next three games are with the Lightning, the Nashville Predators and Boston Bruins. It has 24 points in the past 23 games. That is only a tad better than its pace when Mike Babcock was fired.
He lost his job because so much more was expected from this team. Pretty much since then, the Maple Leafs have stayed on the same track. With a few weeks left, they are still sailing into a strong headwind.
“It was a great game, a beautiful game,” goaltender Frederik Andersen said on Thursday. “It was great to play behind a team like that. The way we played made it easy for me.”
It was a great 1-0 loss.