BOSTON – It came back to poise for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Manhandled in Game 1 of their first round series with the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night, the battered group returned to practice at Boston University on Thursday afternoon, intent on regrouping from the wreckage of a night prior.
"It's a long grind," John-Michael Liles opined in conversation with TSN.ca amid the Massachusetts sun afterward. "It's not just a one-game series."
The one game proved a forgettable nightmare. Overwhelmed by the Bruins power-speed combo in the very one-sided 4-1 defeat, the Leafs could not withstand the heat of the TD Garden environs. Poise, as noted by veteran Jay McClement, was noticeably lacking.
"I think it's preparing yourself mentally," said McClement of the requirements for handling the pressures and intensity of the post-season, the first for many Leafs. "I think for us [Wednesday] night, a lot of it was between our ears."
The Leafs started soundly with a pesky, aggressive front, but were increasingly overcome by the ferocity of Boston's pressure. They were tentative and careless with the puck in all three zones, dropped physical battles and mustered only the faintest flurry of offence, outshot 40-20.
"There's adjustments that you have to make within the game, there's areas that you're going to try and improve on and we've got quite a few of them," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said.
Most prominent among those adjustments was better facilitation and management of the puck, moving it with increased pace and wiliness in all three zones. "They played a hard trapping game and they forced us to make some mistakes and we didn't handle the pressure that they applied to us very well," Carlyle continued before hitting on his greatest source of frustration. "Turnovers always rear their ugly head in an ugly game when you're on the wrong side of a score. And turnovers are an area that we have to improve on dramatically."
As Joffrey Lupul observed of the Bruins afterward, "for the second half of the game they had the puck pretty much exclusively", adding that he and his teammates "want the puck a little bit more, want to be the guy that makes the play". All of which would seem to be defined by the aforementioned poise, an acceptance and understanding of the required intensity of post-season hockey.
Lineup changes are coming, necessitated both by injury and performance.
Michael Kostka endured 22 difficult minutes against the Bruins, breaking a bone in his right index finger midway through Wednesday's action. Sporting a splint on the damaged area on Thursday, he did not practice and will not play on Saturday. He could be joined on the shelf by Cody Franson, who continued to walk with a noticeable limp as he left the Walter Brown arena at BU, the damage of a bruised foot keeping him off the ice for practice.
With at least one and likely both out of the lineup, the Leafs will turn to underused defender Jake Gardiner and Ryan O'Byrne, recently bypassed on the depth chart by Kostka.
Already a source of weakness, the defence will be under increased duress.
With the top pairing of Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson already assuming duties opposite the Bruins top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and Tyler Seguin, the revamped – in all likelihood without Franson – bottom four will be challenged to somehow slow the potent Game 1 trio of David Krejci, Nathan Horton, and Milan Lucic – they had a hand in three of four goals – additionally tested by Boston depth that includes Jaromir Jagr.
"No one was happy coming to the rink today, given our performance," Fraser said. "However, our coaching staff pointed out to us to put it behind us and the adjustments that need to be made are minor. They're things that we've already done in our system before, just based on our opponent we're going to have to tweak a couple things."
Composure with the puck is among the tweaks, a focal point for instruction at Thursday's practice.
"Just move it quicker," Liles explained, noting the need to decisively find open space with the puck, "pick our spots to move it a little better and pick where we're going to have those puck battles. We were having puck battles a little bit lower in the zone I think, try to move them out more towards the blue line."
All of which requires quick puck retrieval and support from the forward complement along the walls. For instance, Liles lost a battle with Daniel Paille moments before the Bruins third goal.
"They tend to flood their guys around the puck," he added, "so it's a matter of communication and quick puck movement."
In support of their blue line, the Leafs will need much more from their group up front, changes also promised in that respect by Carlyle.
"We've got to get back to Toronto hockey here," Phil Kessel said following practice, noting his team's propensity for turnovers in the opener.
Kessel was perhaps most silent on Wednesday night, still searching for answers against his former club, yet to manage a point in five meetings this season, still without an even-strength goal in his career versus Boston.
The 25-year-old finished with a single shot in fewer than 14 minutes. "When your big guys are leading that way, that's what you look for and that's why they're paid the money they're paid and the pressure goes with that," Carlyle said, questioned on the performance of Kessel and Phaneuf.
In addition to Kessel, their leading scorer in the regular season, the Leafs also need more from the likes of Lupul, Nazem Kadri, Clarke MacArthur, Nik Kulemin and Tyler Bozak, an increased effort for overcoming the Bruins third-ranked defensive wall.
"There's always tactical things you can change, but for us, there's a lot of basics that we just didn't do [Wednesday] night, starting with moving our feet and making plays," McClement said. "I don't think we've been that bad in quite a while. We've got a lot of room for improvement, let's put it that way."
Ultimately, the disorienting Leafs team of recent weeks will not be good enough to top a seasoned Bruins squad, seemingly back on track after a rough finish to the regular season. Instead, they'll require something closer to the heightened performance they managed in four meetings with Boston in the regular season, holding at least a chance to win in what concluded as one win and three close defeats.
"You can't get too caught up in one game," Liles concluded. "Until it comes down a Game 7 when it's do or die, you adjust and you move on. If you can come out on Saturday and play a solid game, it can turn [the] series.
"It's a matter of adjusting and re-preparing ourselves for Saturday."