TORONTO – Randy Carlyle fears the house of cards will soon collapse.
"6-1 is only a stat," he declared following an instructive Wednesday practice that lingered for upwards of an hour. "We really know the body of work has to improve. And yet we're happy to take 6-1, but there's a but."
Though they've certainly achieved the desired result with six victories in their first seven games, the process has been anything but a pretty picture for the Leafs. In their most recent outing against the Wild on Tuesday night, they rarely had the puck, were outshot 37-14, out-attempted 68-30 and yet escaped with a deceiving 4-1 win.
It was yet another incomplete victory, an effort in which the Leafs managed to capture two points in spite of glaring and growing flaws. Only terrific special teams, stability in goal from the duo of Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer, and a potent offence have kept the bubble from bursting so far.
"It's a fine line," Jay McClement told the Leaf Report, with the Carolina Hurricanes set to visit the ACC on Thursday. "You don't want to rain on our record, but at the same time there's quite a few games that could've gone the other way and we have to look at that and judge our game accordingly, not just on the result."
There's been sloppiness with the puck, an inconsistent forecheck, little to no sustained pressure in the offensive zone, and far too many quality scoring chances against from the critical areas in and around the net.
"I just think overall we're too loose in the three zones," Carlyle said Tuesday morning before the game against the Wild. "I think it's the ability to step inside and be first on pucks; talk about team toughness and all those things, it's willing to take a check to make a play; stop on pucks instead of circling away; win your share of 1-on-1 battles; start with the puck more on faceoffs. All those things are factors that go into improving your team play."
A consequence of poor puck possession, the Leafs are yielding more than 34 shots per game - fifth-worst overall - putting undue pressure on their goaltenders to be the difference most nights in the early going.
And while Bernier and Reimer and have done just that, combining for a .934 save percentage, at some point the load will be too burdensome to bear, as was nearly the case against the Oilers in a dramatic 6-5 come-from-behind overtime victory this past Saturday. "When we review and review and review there's just some areas that we're really absent in," Carlyle said. "It's a nervous time in the coaches' office because of the shot differential and the quality of chances that we're giving up."
"I think what Randy's talking about and what we feel in here is we just lack the consistency right now in the strong team game that we had last year," McClement said. "We just haven't had it for I don't think for more than a period or two here and there this year."
But with their sparkling record, Carlyle can only push so hard for change.
"You can hide behind 6-1 and 4-1," he said of his team's record and most recent victory. "And rightly or wrongly that's what athletes do."
Fearful of being exposed in very short order - with a trip to the reigning Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks looming on Saturday - Carlyle is preaching that his group "look in the mirror" and contemplate just how unsustainable their current performance is, all this in spite of a glowing record.
"You try to plead to everybody's individual preparation, their focus, their work ethic, do a little bit of self-evaluation," he said.
It's not been all bad.
In addition to mostly fine work in goal, the Leafs have benefited from superb special teams. Their lethal power-play has scored at least once in each of the six victories – without a goal in the lone defeat against Colorado – and rests as the third-best so far this season. A legitimate weapon last season, the penalty kill has remained elite, also third-best at this point.
Offensively, the Leafs continue to score in bunches, nearly four per game in the opening two weeks.
"We definitely have done positive things," McClement concluded. "It's just such a long year that you have to just get into good habits of playing the same way every night. If we do that I think we're going to win a lot of games.
"For a team, for a coaching staff, I'm sure it's the ideal situation; you have a good record, but you still don't feel like we've played as well as we can. I guess you could say it's not the worst problem to have."