The Toronto Maple Leafs headed into the all-star break on Saturday night amid boos and jeers and ridicule. It is not the way any team with postseason aspirations wants to enter its bye week.
Toronto played dreadfully in a 6-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, and the crowd assembled at Scotiabank Arena voiced its dislike. Catcalls accompanied the players as they filed down the tunnel during the intermissions. In the second period, when Frederik Andersen stopped an easy shot, the crowd cheered to mock him.
Until then, shots had bounced off, and gone around and through the Maple Leafs goaltender, who has not looked like one of the National Hockey League’s elite netminders for weeks. He was credited with 28 saves, but most came when the outcome was already decided.
“I think it's time now for everyone here to look in the mirror, myself included,” Andersen said. “It's not a time to point fingers or anything like that.
“[We have] to use this week to reflect, and make sure we come with more intensity and more purpose after the break.”
Toronto lost two of three games last week and has only one victory in its past six. Thanks to this clunker, it no longer holds down a playoff position.
It took Drake Caggiula 21 seconds to score the Blackhawks’ first goal and they led 3-0 after 20 minutes.
“I didn’t have that vibe going into it, but clearly from the drop of the puck we just didn’t have a lot of life,” said Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe. “Then we’re down, we’re down early and it’s a tough game.
“It’s frustrating. I think when you go through these types of things … it’s a sign of where you are and that you’re not where you want to be. We’re not performing or playing with any level of discipline or consistency. We were an immature team here today.”
Afterward, players exhibited the same hangdog look as when they stumbled out of the gate to start the season. They talked about a lack of attention to details and being unprepared to play. They seemed puzzled by their lack of energy and ineptitude.
That is a bad sign 49 games into an 82-game regular season.
“We were sloppy and we missed assignments, and were careless with the puck,” John Tavares, the team captain, said. “It put us behind and gave [the Blackhawks] a lot of confidence, and got them feeling good about themselves. We were not good enough.
“It is not a good feeling. We have to dig down and ask ourselves where we want to get to.”
Toronto has won 12 of 25 games at home. It is playing without its top defenceman, Morgan Rielly, and one of its next best in Jake Muzzin. The latter’s broken foot may be healed well enough for him to be back in the lineup when regular-season games resume on Jan. 27.
The Maple Leafs begin the grind toward April with road games in Nashville and Dallas. They don’t play at home again until the Ottawa Senators visit on Feb. 1.
After a poor start to the season, they regained ground and seemingly were on the right path. It is hard to say that with certainty now.
As per usual on Saturday, they were outhit and had more shots blocked by an opponent than they did themselves. They were outworked and Andersen failed to come up with a big save when it was needed.
Teammates go out of their way not to criticize him and blame themselves instead for his erratic play. That does not make it any less disconcerting. Forty-two shots have made it past him in the past dozen games. His save percentage has fallen to .909, the lowest of his career.
Andersen is on his way to the all-star game proceedings with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. There is not a lot of criticism that can be directed at them. Matthews leads the team with 34 goals and 57 points. Marner, who missed 11 games with an ankle injury, has 47 points.
While the all-stars are in St. Louis, the remaining players will be resting and girding themselves for the gruelling task of securing a spot in the playoffs. By no means is it guaranteed, and that would be a terrible disappointment for this team.
“I think we just hit the reset button and have a nice week to rest and recharge,” Matthews said Saturday night. “Hopefully guys that have been out with injury can get themselves back and ready to play, but there’s really no excuse for how we played tonight.
"It doesn’t really matter who we’re missing or what guys are out. The way we played wasn’t really good enough. I don’t really know what else to say.”
That has been said too many times this season.