To reach the postseason, the Maple Leafs are going to have to do it the hard way now. With each loss that accrues, the undertaking becomes more onerous. The latest occurred on Thursday against Dallas.
The Stars are among the best teams in the NHL, not one Toronto should be expected to beat. More, to gain ground in the standing or better yet not lose any, Dallas is the type of team someone in a fierce battle to make the playoffs needs to beat.
To be fair, the boys from Bay Street enter Saturday’s game in Ottawa against the Senators in third place in the Atlantic Division. If they maintain that position, a chance at the Stanley Cup awaits.
A look at their schedule, however, portends an uphill climb. There are two dozen games left in the regular season and 10 are against opponents with more points than them. Five are against teams snapping at their heels. Just for perspective, the list includes Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Florida and Carolina twice, and Boston, the New York Islanders, Columbus, Carolina, Nashville, Washington and Montreal once each.
An optimist would describe the stretch as an exciting opportunity. A realist would see an unenviable task. A pessimist would picture them with one foot poised to plunge down a mine shaft.
To have any significant chance, there are things the Maple Leafs have to change. Through 58 games, they have allowed the first goal in half of them.
It took Dallas one shot and 82 seconds, and it also scored on its first attempts in the next two periods.
Of the second, head coach Sheldon Keefe declared, “Unacceptable. All six players on the ice didn’t do their job.”
In his return from a neck injury, Frederik Andersen turned away 16 of 19 shots. Two of the goals followed teammates’ mistakes. It is unfair to excoriate him, but Toronto needs him to make the kind of big saves he did earlier in the season.
The Stars outhit the Maple Leafs 27-12 and blocked 18 shots to Toronto’s four. They are a rugged outfit that clamps down when they get a lead. It is their identity, but opponents are likely to use a similar approach from here on in.
“I think it is the time of year,” Keefe said on a conference call with the media on Friday. “Everybody plays a little harder and tighter now. I expect we are going to see a lot more of that.”
The Maple Leafs scrubbed practice on Friday as a handful of players try to shake off the flu. There are plenty of bumps and bruises that a day off will help heal, too.
There are grey clouds on the front. Andreas Johnsson suffered a knee injury against Dallas and will require surgery. Keefe said the winger is expected to miss at least eight weeks. The regular season ends in seven.
Morgan Rielly, who is recovering from a fractured foot, will begin to try to put weight on his leg for the first time next week. The star defenceman’s timeline for a return looks like the end of March at the earliest. Cody Ceci, another blueliner, is out indefinitely.
“It presents a challenge,” Keefe said, without using it as an excuse. “It affects your depth. [But] most teams we are playing are going through the same thing. It is part of the game.”
For his part, Keefe has done a good job since taking over in November after Mike Babcock was fired. Toronto is 21-10-4 in his charge, which is a good enough pace to make the playoffs were it not for a 9-10-4 start.
The Senators have the third-fewest points of any team in the NHL, so Saturday’s game is a good jumping-off point for the slog ahead. It is the first of back-to-back road games, with a meeting against Buffalo looming on Sunday.
The Sabres have had their moments, but are on the decline. It opens the door a bit for the Maple Leafs, but what looked like an inevitable berth in the playoffs in October hangs in the balance.
Keefe talks about some of the same inconsistencies that made Babcock cranky. The players do, too. To recognize them and fix them are two different things.
“It seems like the better we have played defensively, the worse we have played offensively at times,” the coach lamented late Thursday night.
If it is going to happen, it has to happen the hard way now.