Even if you take John Tavares out of the equation, Thursday night’s loss to the New York Islanders should start Toronto Maple Leafs fans fretting about the playoffs.
Every feature of a tough playoff game was present when the Leafs came out for the opening faceoff against the Islanders.
The Leafs were facing a tough, motivated opponent that plays a classic playoff style – fore-check hard, stuff the neutral zone with bodies and then collapse down to goaltender Robin Lehner to block as many shots as possible. And hit everyone as hard as you can.
Then you can throw in the fact it was Tavares’s first visit to Long Island since he left the Islanders as a free agent to sign with his hometown team. The reaction was every bit as bad as imagined – burned Tavares sweaters, defaced ones, too. Stuff was thrown at him, including a sweater that almost hit him. The boos, jeers and taunts were deafening.
There was also an incentive in Boston, where the Bruins, a mere one point ahead of the Leafs for second place in the Atlantic Division, were entertaining the Tampa Bay Lightning, merely the best team in both the division and the NHL.
But on a night when Tavares needed his teammates to have his back they rolled over and died – for the second time this season. On Dec. 29 the Islanders came to Toronto for the first game between them since the signing and they rolled over the Leafs to the tune of 4-0.
Combined with Thursday’s 6-1 surrender, the Islanders have blitzed the Leafs by a total margin of 10-1 this season. They were two of the worst losses this season for the Leafs.
Also, the Bruins – who will most likely be the first-round opponent again this year – beat the Lightning to move three points ahead of the Leafs, who will play the visiting Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night.
With the addition of Tavares and latterly Jake Muzzin, plus the in-house improvements of players such as Morgan Rielly, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, the Leafs were expected by many to be good enough to challenge the Lightning and Bruins this season. Some figured the Leafs could win on skill alone, arguing that this is a new NHL in which referees no longer put their whistles away in the playoffs – that the old clutch-and-grab stuff was gone.
Well, that 6-1 loss on Thursday provided lots to worry about. The Islanders played like many teams still do in the playoffs. No dangling was allowed. The referees put their whistles away. There were a total of three power plays with the Leafs getting two. Toronto’s explosive power play couldn’t get out of the barn.
If you think the Leafs can continue to trust that it’s really going to be different in the playoffs, then you haven’t been watching this league very often. Leafs head coach Mike Babcock certainly took notice of the implications.
“It's a lesson we have to learn,” he said after the game. “We're fortunate that I think we've got  games left. You do this in the playoffs, you lose, you're done right there. We've got these dress rehearsals and then we've got to get points to get in the playoffs.”
At least one player knows the deal as well.
“It’s good for us, it’s a good learning experience,” Leafs forward Zach Hyman said. “This is what playoff hockey is like. It’s loud, fans are in your face, it’s passionate, it’s exciting. We were embarrassed [Thursday night] but we’ll learn from it.”
The trouble is, Hyman is the one guy on the team with no off switch. He can be counted on to fight through checks and throw a few himself. Not enough of his teammates can.
This is not to say the Leafs have to get tougher in the sense of knocking heads and dropping the gloves. That part of the NHL really has gone away. But they do have to get better at the new toughness, for lack of a better phrase, which means getting the puck out of your own end under pressure, fighting through sticks and bodies in the neutral zone and elsewhere and winning most of the one-on-one battles for control of the puck.
If they can still flash all of their skill while doing enough of the grinding that is still necessary in the post-season, great. But too often in the tough and important games, the Leafs’ fancy game dies in bunches of turnovers in the offensive zone, as it did Thursday against the Islanders.
Time is running out for the Leafs to prove they have the right mix.