TORONTO – As he does at the conclusion of each and every skate, Randy Carlyle gathered his players along the side boards and delivered his message, one that lingered a little longer than usual on this day, his words measured and optimistic amid a late season skid.
"We've given ourselves now a tougher task," said Carlyle after the Friday practice, the Toronto head coach notably chipper and upbeat throughout. "But the bottom line is we just have to win our share of games [and] not worry about what anybody else is doing. Win our share of games. Find a way to get our team playing back to the way we're capable of playing."
The Leafs – who may have help on the way – have dropped three straight games for the first time in more than two months, their once secure position in the playoff race suddenly veering toward a more uncertain status. Though they still occupy the first wild card spot in the East, their lead on the likes of Tampa, Montreal, New York, Detroit and Washington has narrowed, if not vanished.
And a sweltering stretch which saw them rack up at least a point in 18 of 22 games (15-4-3) – following that four-game slide in early January – has quickly become old news. More important now is a looming back-to-back set with the Canadiens and Devils, Montreal notably just three points up as the third seed in the Atlantic division.
"I don't think if you go back and watch the game-tape we'd say we're playing terrible games," said Joffrey Lupul of close losses to the Capitals, Red Wings and Lightning. "We're working, we're skating, [but] we're making some critical mistakes to not give us a chance to win."
Among those errors was a mistake by Lupul in the middle frame of a Wednesday loss to Tampa, one that saw the 30-year-old winger fail to chip a puck out along the boards, the mistake resulting in Steven Stamkos's third goal of the game. Execution errors of that kind were common in the first half of a 5-3 loss to the Lightning – now five points up on Toronto with a game in hand – the Leafs late push, like others in Washington and Detroit, just too late to snap a three-game skid.
Carlyle told his team that their competition level, which helped manifest 22 third period shots opposite Ben Bishop, needed to become a more consistent reality. "That has to be 60 minutes," he said.
But what's plagued the Leafs in recent days isn't altogether different from what's lingered beneath the surface all year, defensive concerns standing most prominent. Unlike most of the season, however, their top line has quieted some (with secondary support still inconsistent) and the goaltending in Jonathan Bernier's absence has been merely average.
James Reimer has a .901 save percentage in five consecutive appearances.
Special teams, additionally, have both struggled.
"It's just been a mistake here or a mistake there or not getting the job done on special teams," said Lupul.
Help could be on the way with Dave Bolland "probable" to return against the Canadiens, Bernier remaining out a fourth straight game because of a groin injury.
Sidelined for nearly five months Bolland is expected to play alongside Mason Raymond and David Clarkson, exuding a real excitement about returning to the Toronto lineup for the first time since Nov. 2.
"Things are going upwards," the 27-year-old said ahead of the Saturday tilt.
Bolland has missed the past 56 games with a severed tendon in his left ankle, grueling through months of slow-moving rehab. He appeared close to a return in early March, but was still having trouble crossing over, pushing his timeframe further back than even the team expected.
"It's a grind and it's not fun coming to the rink early in the morning and then leaving later after the guys and then getting there for the game and working out and seeing what's going on on the ice," said Bolland. "It's not a fun moment for hockey players to go through that, to battle through that.
"You don't get any excitement. You don't really feel the excitement that the guys feel when they win … You're sort of in the background when things are going on. It's good to see that everything is going upwards."
Bernier was on the ice for a third straight day Saturday morning, but was not yet at 100 per cent, according to Carlyle. His status for Sunday's game in New Jersey also appears in question with a return more likely early next week.
"We were pretty excited with some of our additions coming into camp and it seems that we haven't had everyone in there as a whole yet," said Lupul. "It'll be interesting to see."
Altering some of the recent maladies though will require improvements elsewhere. Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak were due to cool off from a scorching two-month run and they have, meaning that more is required offensively from Lupul, Nazem Kadri, David Clarkson and other sources of depth from the group up front. Toronto forwards have just seven goals in the last six games.
Unable to outscore teams recently, the Leafs have actually cut down on the number of shots against, yielding only 31 on average during the three-game skid. But they've ceded far too many high-quality opportunities – notably to Stamkos most recently – many of which Reimer could not turn aside as Bernier has for most of the season.
Their power-play, additionally, is in need of a spark with just three goals in the past 14 games. And their penalty kill, once rising, has given up five in the three losses.
Unpredictable and unwaveringly confident all year in the face of adversity, there's no reason why the Leafs can't turn things around in a hurry. But with just 11 games to play and a stake in their second straight trip to the postseason on the line, the clock is certainly ticking.