The one constant with the Toronto Maple Leafs this season is the mantra repeated by their head coach every time he stands in front of a group of reporters.
“We’ve got to find a way to play better and win games no matter who’s in net,” was the version Mike Babcock gave on Sunday, 14 or so hours after the Leafs showed once again that while their point total puts them among the NHL’s big boys, they still can’t beat them very often.
The issue of who is in net came up because Frederik Andersen may finally be ready to play on Monday when the Leafs meet the Colorado Avalanche. There were hopes he might return from his groin injury for Saturday’s game against the Boston Bruins but a case of the flu put the kibosh on that and the Leafs went on to lose 3-2 to the Bruins with stopgap Michael Hutchinson once again trying to hold the fort.
There may be an argument the result might have been different had Andersen, who has not played since Dec. 22, been ready to go. But this game was not lost on goaltending, it was lost because the long line of big scorers the Leafs have these days could not find a way to get better than the Bruins and their big line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak plus their supporting cast.
The game concluded the regular-season series with the Bruins, who will quite likely be the Leafs’ first-round playoff opponent in April for the second consecutive season. Boston took the series 3-1 and the only question is whether it is the Leafs or the Bruins who will have the home-ice advantage when the Atlantic Division series starts.
The excuses following the Bruins loss were much the same as the ones in the wake of a 4-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the runaway Atlantic leaders, on Dec. 13. We outplayed them but their goaltender played great. On Saturday, that was Tuukka Rask and back on Dec. 13 it was Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“We played really well, did a lot of good things but you make a couple costly mistakes and it ends up in the back of your net,” Leafs centre Auston Matthews said after Sunday’s practice. “That’s on us. Their goalie played well, as did ours. You make a couple costly mistakes, it ends up hurting you in the end and then you’re chasing the game in the last period.”
There was also the usual talk about how many scoring chances the Leafs created – more than the Bruins by their reckoning. “I thought lots of guys were good last night. They just didn’t finish when they had the good opportunity,” Babcock said.
This brings to mind a couple of great points Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice likes to make. He says, approximately, that goaltenders are part of the team, too, and they get paid to stop shots. As for the skaters, they are paid to score, not create chances.
The Leafs need to bear this in mind the next time they come up short against one of the NHL’s best teams. If you don’t outplay the goaltender, too, you’re not outplaying the team.
They have a chance to finish their midseason test in decent shape if they can beat the Lightning in Tampa on Thursday. The Leafs also get to warm up against a respectable opponent in the Avalanche that is struggling right now.
The Avalanche come into Toronto on a three-game losing streak and a 1-7-2 run in the last 10 games. But, like the Bruins, they have one dominant line in Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen that can overwhelm opponents.
“They’re good,” Babcock said deadpan when asked what he liked about the Avalanche trio, who have 185 points collectively so far this season. “No, they’re good players. Obviously real good players, real powerful skaters through the middle. Huge, huge eyes out there, make plays, good tenacity in the group and they’re an important part of their team.”
What the Leafs need to do is show some “huge eyes” and “good tenacity” of their own to turn a few more of those chances into goals. It also does not hurt that Andersen, who Babcock would not confirm would be starting on Monday, will probably return from his injury.
Without him, the Leafs went 4-4-0, which included losses to the Nashville Predators and the Bruins. With him, sometimes those two-goal nights against the top teams might be enough to squeak out a win.
Babcock’s caution aside, Andersen said his latest malady, the flu, is gone and he expects to play: “I definitely feel ready to go.”
It also appears backup goaltender Garret Sparks will be back from a concussion. He and Andersen were the only goaltenders at practice on Sunday and Hutchinson worked out on his own afterwards. Also on Sunday, the Leafs signed forward Trevor Moore to a two-year contract extension worth US$750,000 in 2019-20 and US$800,000 in 2020-21.