TORONTO – Picking up the pieces from their worst week of the season, the Maple Leafs are trying to take away something other than disappointment from an awful four-game stretch.
“Adversity is really important for you in life,” explained coach Mike Babcock after the Leafs’ practice on Monday. “When you don’t have any, you think you should get some so you can get better. When you get it, you don’t want it. We have it now. Let’s pull together. Let’s dig in. Let’s get better. [These are] important lessons for us, we just have to build off it.”
Improving on what just transpired shouldn’t be hard. Toronto bookended last week with four-goal losses to the NHL’s best team (Tampa) and its worst (Ottawa), while going a collective 1-3-0 and allowing 23 goals against.
It’s a late-season fall so staggering that backup goalie Garret Sparks felt compelled to call out his team’s lack of emotion following a 6-2 loss to the Senators on Saturday.
By Monday, the theme was turning the page. It had been weeks since Toronto last had a day off and practice day at home between games, a coveted opportunity to recuperate mentally and physically in this condensed span of the schedule. The Leafs used Monday’s session to dial in on their defensive play.
The team will be right back to work on Tuesday in Nashville for the first half of another back-to-back set, before heading to Buffalo on Wednesday.
“I don’t think there’s a guy in our room that doesn’t trust himself,” said Babcock. “Does it not go your way sometimes? Absolutely. But you get up each day, you work hard and you battle your way through it. What you want is a solution. I’m way better when I know what the answer is; when I know what the answer is, I can fix it. We did that here today. We’ve been giving up rush chances, so we talked about it, gave the solution. Now we have to solve the problem.”
Toronto entered last week averaging 2.83 goals against per game, and allowing the eighth-fewest goals all season. The Leafs gave up at least five goals in their next four games, with 21 of the 23 coming at even strength. They also fell behind by at least three to every opponent.
While long-term injuries to Jake Gardiner (back) and Travis Dermott (shoulder) have no doubt caught up to the Leafs and weakened their play in the defensive zone, a poor spell of goaltending from Frederik Andersen (1-2-0, .765 save percentage) and Sparks (0-1-0, .864 save percentage) has made matters worse.
For a club that's been hyping its own depth since training camp, the last seven days have exposed cracks in the Leafs' organizational foundation.
“If you have enough [depth], you don’t miss a beat and you keep on going,” Babcock said. “There are other teams that have done a better job when different players are out than we have [in] keeping on going. That just tells you what state you’re at, and you have to just keep adding better players.”
It’s a strong message for Babcock to relay, although if either of Calle Rosen (foot) or Andreas Borgman (concussion) were available to be recalled from the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies, the Leafs’ blueline might be better off.
Babcock also made it clear Monday that 19-year-old prospect Rasmus Sandin won’t be rushed out of his first AHL season to try to rescue the Leafs, despite tallying 11 points in his last seven games.
“Let’s not get in our own way because we’re feeling a little tension,” said Babcock of respecting Sandin’s development. “Forget that. We have good players here. Dig in and play good.”
That leaves the same Leafs who got themselves into this mess responsible for finding the way out.
“You move past it,” said Andersen, who is slated to start on Tuesday after being pulled from consecutive games last week for the first time in his career. “I’m focused on Nashville now and trying to be prepared for that. I thought we had a good practice today where we were able to do some good work.”
The Leafs should have top-six winger Kasperi Kapanen back in the fold in Nashville after he missed the team’s last four games with a concussion. But just as Toronto gets one piece back, another domino falls in Frederik Gauthier, who won’t be on the trip due to a foot ailment.
Regardless, winning isn’t optional for the Leafs now if they still intend to close the four-point gap on Boston for second in the Atlantic Division and have the inside track on home-ice advantage for the first round of the postseason.
In order to do that, Toronto will have to start acting like a playoff team again.
“Once we work our way out of [this adversity], we’ll be better off,” added Andersen. “You don’t feel good [going through it], but once you get out of it, you’re better off. Hopefully you learn some really valuable lessons.”