Contender or pretender?
The Toronto Maple Leafs can go a long way toward answering that Monday night in Buffalo after being run out of the U.S. Naval Academy over the weekend by the Washington Capitals.
Going into the last outdoor game of the NHL's regular season on Saturday night at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md., the weakest thing about the Maple Leafs was supposed to be the white-on-white uniforms they wore for the occasion. But the Capitals made the uniforms the least of it in a dominant 5-2 win. The Maple Leafs, who were without Auston Matthews and, especially, without a stellar game from goaltender Frederik Andersen, are apparently far from the serious contender they appeared to be in January and February.
The Buffalo Sabres may be the second-worst team in the NHL but in their past three games they have wins over the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning – one of which will play the Leafs in the first round of the playoffs. What the Leafs need is a convincing win to show the loss to the Capitals was a one-off rather than a troubling indication they still do not have the defensive depth to advance in the playoffs.
"Obviously, we've got to regroup," an unhappy Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said after Saturday's loss, which left the Leafs 0-1-2 on their four-game trip. "We'll be practising [Sunday in Buffalo]. The work we didn't put in [Saturday] we'll be putting in and get back on track."
The coach also had a warning for his players in case they thought an easy night against the Sabres was in store.
"The league is tough every night, every team you play," Babcock said. "When we go to Buffalo they'll have a whole bunch of people that are battling for their life, for their livelihood, and they're going to play that hard. You've got to play that hard."
Andersen was the common denominator in the Leafs' strong run, which started Jan. 4 with a win over the San Jose Sharks. The Leafs went 16-5-5 in the 26 games since and the goaltender was usually their best player. In 13 games of that stretch, Andersen faced 35 or more shots.
But when he finally, inevitably, had a bad game on Saturday night, the Leafs defensive game showed all of its holes. While there are problems with the defence unit itself – Nikita Zaitsev has not played up to his usual standard after coming back from a broken foot on Jan. 31 and general manager Lou Lamoriello was unable to add some talent at a reasonable price by the trade deadline – they go beyond just the six defencemen on the ice every night.
A season-long weakness for the Leafs is the reluctance of the forwards to consistently take care of their responsibilities in their own zone. Apparently the Leafs still think they can score their way out of trouble. This shortcoming is even more apparent without Matthews, who is one of the few forwards who plays at both ends of the ice most of the time.
When an opponent fore-checks hard, the Leafs are in trouble. With the Capitals coming hard on Saturday, any memory the Leafs had of giving them fits in the playoffs last spring were gone. Alexander Ovechkin, who was barely visible in that first-round series, was a force all night and the Leafs were fortunate all he went away with was his 40th goal of the season.
The Leafs will have to fix something in a hurry because Andersen has been showing signs for a while of needing some help from his teammates. No goaltender in the league has played close to Andersen's 3,268-plus minutes.
It is no wonder he finally surrendered five goals on 25 shots against the Caps before getting pulled. Andersen gave up three or more goals for the fourth consecutive game and the 10th time in his past 12 games. That is much scarier than losing Matthews, who may be out for at least another week with a shoulder injury.
"They look at us and they still think we're kids," Babcock said of the Capitals. "It looked like we were kids here [Saturday]. I thought they smacked us around and fore-checked us."
Fortunately for the Leafs, they still have time left in the regular season to grow up.