Mike Babcock and his players are on the same page, at least.
“I think our group feels pretty good today because we played well,” the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach said on Friday. “When you don’t play well, you leave the rink, you feel bad. When you play good, sometimes it doesn’t go your way but if you do it right … we probably stole a game we didn’t deserve to win earlier [in the season].”
A few minutes earlier, Leafs centre John Tavares said, “I thought we did some better things [Thursday night] than we did Monday. We can build on that and we know we have to find a way to get points.”
They were talking about Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars and how it was so much better than Monday’s 3-1 loss to the Calgary Flames, even if it was their fourth loss in their past six games and fifth in eight games at home. Now, the inference was, the Leafs are in a much better position to go into Pittsburgh on Saturday night and avenge the 3-0 loss the Penguins handed them on Oct. 13.
The Leafs were less awful offensively against the Stars, but they still have to be a lot less awful to look as though they are going to compete with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins. That 3-0 loss almost three weeks ago came with Auston Matthews in the lineup. Matthews, of course, hurt his shoulder last weekend and will be out for a month, although he did get on the ice for a solo skating session before the Leafs’ Friday practice.
But the numbers do suggest the Leafs have reached that spot NHL teams trying to pull out of a tailspin do just before they turn things around. That is the one where they say we aren’t getting the results but we’re getting better.
There is some evidence to support this. The Leafs outshot the Stars 32-19. They were shooting on the backup goaltender, Anton Khudobin, who happened to play like an all-star. But what is the most impressive here is the 19 shots against. It was the first time this season the Leafs allowed fewer than 20 shots on goal.
However, the problems are mostly on the offensive side of the ledger. And the problem is not enough of the big guns, who are supposed to give the Leafs enough depth to stand the loss of Matthews and the continuing absence of William Nylander (contract), are scoring.
In this run of four losses in six games, only centre Nazem Kadri – who took 10 games to get his first goal of the season – is scoring consistently. He has three goals in this stretch, while Kasperi Kapanen has two. Tavares has one, the same as Patrick Marleau, who finally scored his second goal of the season on Thursday night.
The power play, which was supposed to blow teams away this season, is also part of the problem. Its record is a modest two goals in 17 opportunities in the past six games. But those two goals came in the past two games, which can be taken as another sign of hope or grasping at straws, depending on your perspective.
The consensus among the players seems to be that only minor adjustments are needed on the power play and with the offence as a whole they should just keep doing what they did against the Stars.
“I think we need to get more pucks [to the net],” forward Mitch Marner said. “I think from the outside guys, [we need] shots that are going to give more rebounds, more second opportunities. That’s something we’re trying to work on.
“I think as a group we’re moving the puck well, we’re getting the puck there. It’s just those second opportunities are bouncing over [sticks]. We just can’t buy one like that. Eventually they’ll go in. Until then we’ve just got to try and get those dirty ones.”
In the absence of Matthews, much more is expected of Tavares and Kadri as the remainder of the top three centres. But the expectations fall more on Tavares given Kadri’s duties as the shutdown guy. Tavares can expect a steady diet of Crosby or Malkin on Saturday night but he is trying not to let that prospect or the heightened expectations eat him up.
“I know I’m being counted on to produce and it’s part of the game,” Tavares said. “It’s supposed to be one of my strengths. I wouldn’t say I put any more pressure on myself than I do normally to play at a high level and play consistently.
“I think it’s mostly about creating opportunities, being good without the puck and capitalizing when I get them and trying to making a big impact. I really don’t try to change that mind-set or my focus that way. I just try to come every day and get better. I want to push myself to another level.”