TORONTO – It’s difficult for the Maple Leafs to explain the first half of this week, where in three days they went from surging towards the postseason to reflecting on terrible losses to Tampa and Chicago.
This last stretch of the regular season is hardly the ideal time for introspection, but it’s where the Leafs have put themselves – rattled, but not without faith.
“It’s important we look at ourselves and the video and talk about what we can do better because we believe in our group,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly after the Leafs’ practice on Thursday. “We want to win. We want to play a long time in the spring. We don’t want to be one and done. Efforts like last night and the game before aren’t acceptable.”
The Leafs have been their own worst enemy lately, repeatedly getting in their own way with mistakes that threaten any hope of a deep springtime run.
The team was brutally ineffective in the first period of both Monday’s 6-2 loss to the Lightning and Wednesday’s 5-4 loss to the Blackhawks, falling behind 4-0 and 5-0 in those respective outings before registering a goal in response.
Despite how well-prepared the Leafs claim to have been on each night, their flat and careless play early on said otherwise.
So instead of challenging Boston (also losers of their last two) for second place in the Atlantic Division and home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, the Leafs are busy digging for answers for their concerning lack of urgency.
“We keep on saying playoffs are around the corner and we have to get into playoff mode, but we have to show it and we have to start doing it,” Rielly said. “There’s no reason to not be urgent and prepared and hungry at this point in the year.”
“There are nights where it looks like we’re ready for [playoffs], and nights where it looks like we’re not ready for it at all,” added Mitch Marner. “We have 12 games [left] here, have to dial it in and get ready for it. We know how good of a team we can be when we come ready to play. That’s just something we have to get better at doing.”
Toronto’s inability to do something as basic as starting games well remains a mystery, and it's not a new one. The Leafs’ opponents have scored first in six of their last seven home games, including five times in the first period. Toronto has been outscored 13-3 overall in the first period during that stretch.
That Toronto managed to come back to win four of those games is of little solace when all four of the teams they beat aren’t in the postseason picture.
Somewhat more comforting is the fact that the Leafs’ younger stars feel better equipped now to deal with the kind of adversity that might have crushed their confidence in the past.
“Our first year [in 2016-17], we would have been more nervous, more concerned about this,” said Marner of his fellow third-year players. “We’re all grown up in here now; we know how to deal with this. We talk about it a lot in this locker room, but we have to start really coming to play and acting like we’re ready for that [playoff push].”
Two years ago, though, few predicted the Leafs would even make it to the postseason, let alone win a series. Expectations have changed for the team since then. This is the first season since Marner, Auston Matthews and William Nylander became full-time NHLers that Toronto’s talent and skill was meant to not only earn a playoff spot, but actually make some noise once they arrived.
Given the league’s playoff format, Toronto has basically been locked into a first-round meeting with Boston for weeks, making it easier to view these late-season games as superfluous. But this group of Maple Leafs has no playoff track record to crow about. In reality, they’ll need every tune-up game available to change that this year.
“If you look at last year, we got bounced in the first round [by Boston], and that’s not a good feeling,” Rielly said. “There’s really no accomplishments there we can hang our hat on. Guys should be hungrier than ever to prove our team can win in the playoffs and we can win big games and carry momentum and it’s important we focus on that.”
The Leafs can start on Friday night, when the Philadelphia Flyers pay a visit in hot pursuit of a playoff berth. It’s the type of test Toronto failed against Chicago, when a similarly desperate club made the Leafs look vulnerable.
Only they have the power now to prove otherwise.
“We have a confidence in one another, we have to pick each other up and make sure no one’s slacking behind,” said Matthews. “Everyone has turned the page. Tomorrow it’s a big game for us in terms of really getting back on track and putting our foot down and just trying to bring some energy to the room.”