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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs who practised at MasterCard Centre on Thursday. 

The Maple Leafs fell behind early in ho​me losses to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks this week, but it was only the latest example of slow starts plaguing the team. It's been a recurring issue and Mitch Marner says enough is enough. 

“It’s something we’ve talked about all year,” Toronto’s scoring leader said, “but, we have to start acting like it’s meaningful and we got to stop talking about it. We just got to do it.”

Toronto has allowed the first goal in six of seven at home getting out-scored 13-3 in the first period of those games.​

There's no panic, but a definite sense of urgency around the team.

"We hold each other accountable in this room," said Auston Matthews, "and tomorrow is a big game for us, I think, in terms of really getting back on track and making sure we put our foot down and start on the right foot."

The schedule has been packed of late with lots of travel and Thursday was actually the first time the Leafs practised at their home facility since Feb. 26. What did they work on?

"We tried to focus on our details," said coach Mike Babcock, "and get back skating and skating like we can. We have to play fast in order to have success. We’ve been slow. We’ve been slow on defence so other teams have more time on the puck and we just trie​d to tighten that up."

After allowing 13 goals in the last seven periods, defence is a focal point. 

"We can come better prepared to play," goalie Frederik Andersen said in his post-game scrum on Wednesday. "Once we do start playing for each other I think we're doing well. It's definitely something we need to figure out ... By playing for each other I mean communicating (in the D zone) and stuff like that. I think we can do a better job at that and that falls on everyone so something we got to look at."

Staying mentally sharp and maintaining an edge for all 60 minutes is also an issue. Toronto blew a 2-0 lead in the third period against the Canucks in Vancouver last week and nearly saw a three-goal lead vanish to the Oilers in Edmonton on Saturday. 

"We need to clean up some things defensively in our own zone," acknowledged Matthews, "and make sure we're communicating, but I think really the purpose of today is just get our energy back up, get our confidence back up."

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On Wednesday, the Leafs faltered against a desperate Blackhawks team fighting for survival in the Western Conference playoff race. On Friday, they'll face a similar opponent as the Philadelphia Flyers have been surging back into contention. Babcock doesn't believe his players need to be reminded about the intensity level at this time of year. 

"I don’t think, when you’re looking at our group, that we need a lot of that, to be honest with you," he said. "We understand what's at stake for us. We understand our opportunity is here and now. Next year in sport never comes. We play in a real good division with real good teams, you got to be on top of your game."

The Leafs appear destined to play the Boston Bruins again in the first round of the playoffs and have four weeks left to make sure they’re ready for the challenge. 

"We got some work to do," said centre Nazem Kadri. "Twelve games is a nice body of work in order to prepare yourselves for the postseason."

"You're getting closer to playoff hockey," said alternate captain John Tavares, "the margin for error becomes smaller and smaller and as a group we have to understand that and do a better job in understanding that one, two mistakes mean a lot, especially this time of year."

How close are the Leafs to being ready? 

"There’s nights where it looks like we’re ready for it and there's some nights where it looks like we're not ready for it at all," said Marner. "We got 12 games here so we have to make sure we dial it in and get ready. It’s a different beast in the playoffs and we have to make sure we're ready for it ... Our first year we would’ve been more concerned, we would’ve been more nervous about this. We’re all grown up in here now and we know how to deal with this."

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With Kasperi Kapanen out with a concussion, William Nylander has slotted back into his old spot beside Matthews. He was quiet in Monday's shellacking by the Lightning, but looked much, much better against the Blackhawks. 

"For me, last night Willie was in on the most he’s been in on this year," Babcock noted. "I thought he skated real well. I thought he competed real hard. I thought he was at the net. I thought he tipped pucks. Even before they got any offence to go for them, he had hit the post a couple times and had been in home free. I liked how he tracked, how he worked and how he got to the net."

Nylander, who had just one assist in the previous six games, finished with two assists and five shots against the Blackhawks. 

While the Andreas Johnsson-Matthews-Nylander line remained together throughout the night, Babcock tinkered with two other lines attempting to fill the void left by the flu-ridden Zach Hyman. Patrick Marleau started with Kadri and Connor Brown, but was elevated to the top line with Tavares and Marner in the second period. Trevor Moore started the game in that slot before replacing Marleau on the third line. 

"Moorsey, at the start of the game, it didn't go for him in the first period with that group," Babcock observed. "When we put him with Naz I thought he was good. Now, Moorsey's been good. His job's normally more limited than it was, but he's been real good for us and been a worker, a forechecker, played with speed, made good plays with the puck, has good detail in his game. I thought in the second and the third he had that back."

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Hyman missed practice on Thursday. How's he feeling? 

"Yeah, he's not here," Babcock said.

Will he miss Friday’s game? 

"I sure hope not," the coach said. 

Hyman is the latest Leaf to go down. Kapanen also didn't take part in practice on Thursday while defencemen Travis Dermott (shoulder) and Jake Gardiner (back) remain sidelined and are listed as week-to-week. Babcock refuses to use that as an excuse for this team's lacklustre losses. 

"We're here to discuss the players in the lineup," he said. "I don’t buy into any of that. You put our uniform on, you have to be ready to go. Injuries are all part of sport and it doesn’t matter who’s playing. We expect a lot from our group, doesn’t matter if you played three games, five games, 10 games, or you just got called up from the [AHL Toronto] Marlies."

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Lines at Thursday's Leafs practice: 

Forwards
Marleau-Tavares-Marner 
Johnsson-Matthews-Nylander
Moore-Kadri-Brown
Ennis-Gauthier-Petan 

Defencemen
Rielly-Hainsey
Muzzin-Zaitsev
Marincin-Holl
Ozhiganov 

Goaltenders
Andersen
Sparks