WASHINGTON D.C. – Randy Carlyle, for one, would like to know where such an effort was hiding.
Though they dropped their fourth consecutive game in the U.S. capital on Friday night – and 21st in 32 games since the start of November – the Maple Leafs finally played with the fight that had been mysteriously missing in recent days and, really, for the better part of a disappointing season.
"We've been begging, pleading, kicking, kissing, whatever we can do to try and find a way that we can play with some confidence," said Carlyle after a 3-2 loss to the Capitals. "This might be one of the better games we've played in a month. We showed desperation. We showed that we care [and] when we put our effort and our heart into it that there is more in that room than what's been displayed and that's what's been frustrating everybody – and they're frustrated also."
Still embarrassed from their second blowout loss in the past three games – a 6-1 pounding in Carolina just a night earlier – the Leafs at last competed with the necessary gumption and fire that was noticeably absent all week.
Why it took so long to materialize and where it had been hiding was a "mind-boggling" and befuddling point for the Leafs head coach.
His team was cleaner, crisper and a considerable contrast to the apparent mess that materialized against the Rangers and Hurricanes. A few mistakes and two unlucky bounces – both the Capitals' game-tying and game-winning goals deflected off Toronto skates – ultimately saw a third period lead unravel, but there was, nonetheless, an air of cautious optimism afterward.
"I think we played harder," said Dion Phaneuf, leading the team with 24 minutes. "No one likes to be embarrassed the way that we were."
"We knew we needed it," David Clarkson added of the improved effort. "We've got to find ways to compete like that every night. Compete. Compete. Win our battles and we'll be okay."
It was the smallest of steps – they still lost for one thing – but a needed step no less for a team that's been light on optimism in the past two months. An unpredictable animal all year, what remains in question is how the Leafs respond when they host the Devils on Sunday night.
Inconsistency has been the defining identity of the club so far. One good effort has only rarely translated into two. In fact, Toronto has won back-to-back games in regulation just once since the start of November.
The reality of such a lengthy slide has seen them fall out of a playoff position for the first time all season in recent days, now 10th in the East with 47 points.
"We need to start to churn some points for our hockey club to feel good about ourselves," said Carlyle, who felt his team was harder to play against, more physical and tighter defensively against the Capitals. "There's not a lot of easy breathing taking place around our group right now. That's the reality of it. But that's what happens when you don't have success."
"It's not great when you're losing," Clarkson said. "But this is the part [of the season] that we're going to have to rally together. We're going to have to find ways to get wins. I think if we play like we did tonight against every single team, I think we'll be fine."
1. Source of Trouble
Carl Gunnarsson pointed to the Leafs' inconsistency, night to night, period to period, shift to shift, as the source of a troubling first half.
"Some nights the forecheck has been great and the day after, it's been not as good," he said moments before Friday's game. "It's been just inconsistent all over. The only thing that's been good throughout the year, I think the goaltending has been great from both guys back there. They saved us in a bunch of games."
Gunnarsson said the team could work well within its respective system, but failed to do so with any semblance of consistency.
"When we do it well it works," he said. "So it's just a matter of doing it every night, every shift, not only for every other night or 20, 40 minutes per game, it's not enough. It's got to be every night and for 60 minutes."
2. The More Consistent Option in Goal
Making his seventh start in the past eight games, Jonathan Bernier returned to the form that saw him gripping hold of the crease before a pair of losses earlier this week. The 25-year-old stopped 32 of 35 shots in defeat.
Though he and his counterpart, James Reimer, have been equals for the better part of the season, Bernier has certainly proven the more consistent of the two, though Reimer has been dealt his fair share of bad hands, including Thursday's lackluster effort in Carolina.
As the table below indicates, Bernier's performance has fluctuated only slightly all season.
Sitting for just the second time all season on Thursday night, Jake Gardiner was back in the Toronto lineup against the Capitals, paired with 19-year-old Morgan Rielly for the third time this season.
"I thought that was one of Jake's best performances," Carlyle said of Gardiner, who played just under 20 minutes. "He moved the puck, he skated, he didn't turn it over, he made a lot of good plays. That's what we're looking for from him every night."
Carlyle hadn't been happy with the 23-year-old's performance against the Rangers and Islanders, pulling him from the lineup in Carolina.
"That's the trials and tribulations of a young player," Carlyle continued. "We know Jake Gardiner has NHL-quality skills, but we believe that there's something there that takes him out of that after four or five games. Whatever that is we've got to find a way to correct that."
Of note, Carlyle had Gardiner on the third pairing alongside Rielly, rather than the second grouping with Cody Franson where he's played the better part of the season with inconsistent success.
4. Opting for Optimism
Rather than inflame the misery of a perilous slide on Friday morning, Carlyle opted to point out the positives of losses to the Hurricanes and Islanders.
"[We] tried to focus on some of the things that we're doing well in [Thursday] night's game and some of the games [recently]," said Carlyle after Friday's game.
5. End of a Cold Spell?
James van Riemsdyk had his first multi-point outing in more than a month on Friday.
Scoring for just the third time in the past 16 games, his 16th this season, while adding a helper on Phil Kessel's 21st goal of the season, van Riemsdyk had a pair of points in the same game for the first time since Dec. 7. He sits second on the team in scoring with 33 points in 44 games.
"There's always going to be challenges throughout the year," the 24-year-old said, speaking generally about the team. "It's about how you respond to that. There's going to be no sulking done by us, throwing a pity party or feeling sorry for ourselves. We know what we need to do. I think the effort tonight was a good response with how we kind of laid an egg [Thursday] night."
4 – Goals in the past 19 games for James van Riemsdyk, who scored his 16th this season on Friday.
19:33 – Ice-time for Jake Gardiner against Washington.
11-16-5 – Leafs record since the start of November.
22 – Points in the past 32 games for Phil Kessel, who had 18 points in October alone.
6 – Fights this season for Colton Orr, who dueled with John Erskine on Friday.
12 – Points in the past 10 games for Tyler Bozak, who has 18 points in 22 games this season.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 21.7% (5th)
Season: 77.5% (27th)
Quote of the Night
"We've been begging, pleading, kicking, kissing, whatever we can do to try and find a way that we can play with some confidence."
-Randy Carlyle, following the 3-2 defeat in Washington.
The Leafs host the Devils in yet another Sunday night affair at the ACC.