As big moments go, this was right up there with forgetting your lines at the Christmas pageant.
Last week was supposed to be a special trip for the Toronto Maple Leafs, with the players’ and some staffers’ moms joining them for the last two games. It was supposed to be a memorable jaunt to Florida, starting with a challenge to the best team in the NHL, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who also stand between the Leafs and getting out of the Atlantic Division in the playoffs. Then the trip was to finish on Saturday with an easy game against the Florida Panthers, sending the moms home proud and happy.
But the Maple Leafs, like third-graders freezing in front of their families in the big holiday show, failed badly in Florida. There were also signs they weren’t getting the message that a lot of improvement is needed.
After the Tampa game, in which the Leafs outplayed and outshot the Lightning only to lose 4-1, in part because of a hot goaltender, they insisted the takeaway was that they were the better team. This rationale became a lot harder to swallow after a 4-3 overtime loss to the mediocre Panthers on Saturday, but Leafs head coach Mike Babcock wasn’t having any talk about his team being in a funk.
“I don’t … come out to this and say, ‘Jeez, the wheels are off here,’" Babcock said. “I don’t see that at all. We weren’t good enough, that’s it. Didn’t play hard enough.”
Recent results argue otherwise. The Leafs have now lost four of their past five games. While they were not exactly a powerhouse at five-on-five in the Florida games, their special teams are especially bad of late.
In their past six games, the Leafs power play has one goal in 22 opportunities. This is an embarrassing mark for a unit that has Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner cycling through it.
The penalty killers are even worse. The Leafs started the trip ranked 13th in the NHL in killing penalties and, after coughing up two power-play goals to the Panthers in four chances, they fell to 18th before Sunday’s games with a success rate of 78.2 per cent.
There is also a little too much evidence the players have been reading and believing the hype about the team. It seems the Leafs think they can turn on the scoring when they feel like it. Once again, the Leafs came out floating against a lesser team, only to see the Panthers take a 2-0 lead into the third period. And, once again, the Leafs woke up, scored three goals to get the game into overtime and then fell short.
The culprits did not have a lot of answers when it came to what ails the special teams. Defenceman Ron Hainsey said before the Panthers game he was “not particularly satisfied” with the Leafs penalty-killing unit. But he didn’t offer any specifics.
“We know what the issues are and when we have breakdowns,” he said. “There’s plenty of things we can improve on. We’re continuing to work at it, but at this point, it’s average at best.”
Goaltender Frederik Andersen said the Leafs need to communicate better when they are trying to clear the puck out of their own zone during an opposition power play. That’s about as specific as anyone got.
As for the power play, the Leafs continue to struggle with the plan conceived by just about every opponent this month to take away the middle of the ice from their fancy skaters.
“Execution wasn’t very good and they blocked a lot of shots,” Tavares said of the Panthers' penalty-killers. “They clogged it up in the middle and we know teams are prescouting and getting a sense for what we’re doing. Obviously, we’re trying to make adjustments, but at the same time, we’re not trying to do too much either. You don’t want to get too far away from what makes you successful and it’s just finding that right balance.
“Sometimes that’s just the way it goes, doesn’t bounce your way and other times it seems like everything is bouncing your way. We just have to stay with it and find a way to generate some results from that to give us a better chance in these games.”
Babcock said much the same about the Leafs’ woes.
“We have to get back at it,” the coach said. “I think you go through ebbs and flows each year. Let’s just keep steady on the rudder and let’s just keep going and find ways to improve.”
The luck of the schedule means the Leafs don’t have to regroup against the NHL’s best this week. They start with a road game against the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday and then get the Panthers again on Thursday, but this time at home.
Presumably the Leafs learned last week that coasting through the first half of games they are supposed to win is no way to ensure it happens.