The Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers skated at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday.
Sheldon Keefe used the word "perplexing" to describe Toronto's start on Monday night. It came on the heels of what the coach called the team's most complete effort of the season on Saturday.
"We go into that game, and we had won four in a row, and, despite that, our guys still have lots of urgency and play hard and are competitive," Keefe said. "Saturday night against the Boston Bruins and the guys are ready to play, and then it's a Monday against the L.A. Kings and we're not and that's not acceptable. That's not what we want to be about as a team."
It was the ninth time in 13 games that Toronto allowed the first goal. Only the Vancouver Canucks have been slower starters this season.
"We can't sit back," said gritty winger Wayne Simmonds. "We can't wait. I feel like we've probably done that a little bit too much this year, you know, the feeling-out process, and we don't want that to be the makeup of our team. We want to go out there and jump on it right away."
Last season, the Leafs scored first 34 times in 56 games, which was tied for third overall in the league. It's unclear why they've struggled in that department so far this year.
"It's a $1-million question," said Keefe. "Coaches will beat yourself up over that and sometimes players will too just trying to figure it out."
The Leafs have tried switching up some pre-game routines but haven't discovered any trends that lead to good or bad starts.
"The players have a responsibility to have themselves prepared, but it's not just them," said Keefe. "It's my job to influence these players and have them ready and I hold myself accountable just the same."
The Flyers have opened the scoring in seven of 10 games this season.
In last year's playoffs, Keefe sent Simmonds out alongside top-line players Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman to open a few games. It was a tone-setting move and one that, perhaps, he will go back to this evening. Simmonds believes the opening shift can be significant. The key?
"Just making sure that you're following the structure within the rules of the team game, because that really snowballs," Simmonds explained. "If the first line does it, the second line's going to do it, the third line's going to do it, the fourth line's going to do it and I really believe that's how you start a real good 60-minute effort."
Simmonds has been an emotional leader for the team. The 33-year-old winger was credited with speaking up when the team was mired in a four-game skid in October.
"He's full of energy," said defenceman T.J. Brodie. "He's full of fire. You can see it out there. He gets fired up from time to time and brings that edge and that energy to the game ... During that rough stretch, it’s frustrating, it feels like everything is going wrong and to have the energy on the bench, it gives you a boost. Sometimes it's easy to get in your own head and everyone gets quiet, and you need that."
Simmonds should be even more amped up tonight. He spent eight seasons in Philadelphia and loves playing at the Wells Fargo Center.
"I think this is one of the best buildings to play in in the league whether you're on the home team or on the visiting squad," Simmonds said. "I look for it to be electric tonight. They're usually crazy. Extremely crazy. It's unbelievable."
After getting banged up in Monday's game and missing Tuesday's practice, John Tavares and Ondrej Kase took part in Toronto's optional skate on Wednesday morning.
"The fact that they're on the ice and they stayed out there this long is a positive thing," Keefe said. "I know both guys were preparing as though they would play but they needed to skate and see how that went. They'll remain game-time decisions right until after warmup. So, we're going to give them as much time as we can to be feeling good. The fact that we're even considering them, they're pretty minor [injuries] at this stage, but we want to make sure that they're comfortable and ready to play. You'll see [Joey] Anderson and [Kirill] Semyonov both in warmup and they'll be ready to play if those guys can't go."
At Tuesday's practice, Alex Kerfoot shifted to centre on the second line and Nick Ritchie moved up to the left-wing spot on that line alongside Mitch Marner.
Anderson skated in Kase's spot on the third line alongside David Kampf and Pierre Engvall.
Semyonov, who has yet to play in the NHL, skated with Simmonds and Jason Spezza on the fourth line.
Ritchie took Tavares' spot on the top power-play unit while Simmonds joined the second unit.
Tavares has been heating up of late with six goals in the last six games.
The Leafs have only got one goal from a defenceman in 13 games this season. Last year, Toronto's defence chipped in with 14 goals in 56 games. What's behind the downturn in production?
"It's hard to put a finger on it," said Keefe. "I've gone back through a lot of our scoring chances and our D are involved in a lot of them. We've had some really good looks from our defence, and it hasn't gone in, so some of it is just a little bad luck. Some of it is, you know, generating consistent point shots and getting pucks to go through."
Toronto's defence has produced seven primary points in five-on-five play. Morgan Rielly has three primary assists. Rasmus Sandin has two. Brodie has one.
"I've looked at a lot of the defence scoring around the league and a lot of it is activating offensively in the offensive zone, it's on the rush, and our D are just as active if not more than most teams yet that hasn't produced the results that we want," Keefe said. "It is a bit of an oddity."
Brodie finished with 14 points in 56 games last season and has made contributing more offence a point of emphasis this year. How is he adjusting?
"Mostly just in the offensive zone," he said, "trying to make plays, keep pucks alive, play defence by playing offence and keeping the puck down there."
"Sometimes, for the D, it is not so much the actual goal going into the net," noted Keefe, "but can you create a goal for somebody else by shooting the puck off of the goaltender or off of a stick? It creates more chaos. Overall, as we get to that, more offence will follow."
Sandin, 21, and Timothy Liljegren, 22, earned positive reviews for their play on Toronto's third pair during the recent five-game home stand. But tonight, the pair of pals face their first test on the road where Keefe can't ensure sheltered minutes. The Flyers are flying to start the season with a 6-2-2 record.
"It's a deep team both offensively, with how they play, but also in just line over line, all four, they play hard, they're on top of you quickly so it's going to be a challenge for them," Keefe said. "I'm looking forward to seeing how that plays out. Same with Justin Holl coming back in."
Holl, a healthy scratch in five straight, will suit up for the first time since Oct. 27.
"Just want to see him not overthink it, not overdo it," Keefe said. "When he's playing well, he's skating offensively and defensively. He's skating and getting in people's way defensively, he's physical, getting plays stopped and then moving it quickly up the ice to our forwards and getting us going on offence. So, that's really it. Do his job there. Do his job on the penalty kill. That's it. I know he's excited to play."
Holl will line up beside Jake Muzzin on Toronto's shutdown pair. Travis Dermott will be a healthy scratch as Brodie is reunited with Rielly on the top pair.
What does Brodie notice about the Flyers attack?
"Their speed and their ability to get free down low," he said. "They like to find that quiet ice and get the puck to it so it's going to be a good challenge."
Lines at Tuesday's practice:
Bunting - Matthews - Nylander
Ritchie - Kerfoot - Marner
Engvall - Kampf - Anderson
Semyonov - Spezza - Simmonds
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Sandin - Liljegren