TORONTO – The Maple Leafs’ woke up Thursday out of a playoff spot, a stark reflection of just how poor their recent play has been and how much is riding on their second meeting with the Pittsburgh Penguins this week.
“I just want to see a response – in our effort, our enthusiasm, our competitiveness,” said Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe after the team’s optional morning skate ahead of Thursday’s game. “All those things that we know are really important and that we've talked about a number of times as a team as being the foundation to give yourself [a chance] to have any sort of success…and let our skill be the difference. We have a chance to respond tonight and we're looking forward to it.”
Toronto has just one regulation win in the past 10 games, producing a 4-5-1 record in February that was punctuated by an embarrassing set of 5-2 losses (against Buffalo and then Pittsburgh) leading into Thursday night.
The Florida Panthers topped the Anaheim Ducks 4-1 late on Wednesday, pushing the Leafs from third place in the Atlantic Division to 10th place in the Eastern Conference and two points out of a wild-card spot.
It’s a bleak reality for the Leafs, but Keefe is doing his best to keep the struggles in perspective. While admitting there will be lineup changes for Toronto in the wake of Tuesday’s loss, including the insertion of newly acquired forward Denis Malgin, Keefe refused to say exactly what the adjustments will be to try and get the Leafs back on course.
“We're in a battle right now to make the playoffs,” Keefe said. “But I believe when we come through this and get ourselves on the other side of it we'll be far more prepared to play in the playoffs than we would have been previously. It's part of our growth.”
Keefe also pointed out the Leafs are in a better position now (16th overall in the NHL) than they were going into the All-Star Break in January (18th), illustrating to him that progress is still being made.
“We've improved our situation despite the fact that we've played some of our worst hockey since I've been here,” Keefe said. “So there are lots of reasons for us to have optimism. As a team, when you're trying to take a step, trying to get to another level, we have to acknowledge and recognize that it's not going to be smooth.”
This isn’t the first time Toronto has navigated adversity this season, a fact Keefe reminds his group of often. He frequently references their game on Dec. 4 against Colorado, the second half of a back-to-back that followed an epic third-period collapse in Philadelphia the night before.
The Leafs answered that abysmal final frame against the Flyers with one of their best defensive efforts of the season in a 3-1 loss that showcased some of the resiliency the team needs to tap into again.
“Our competitiveness as a team, enthusiasm as a team, commitment to the details; that game had a lot of really good things happening,” said Keefe. “Most importantly, it just showed what's there in terms of the character and the pride, and we have an opportunity to see that again tonight.”
Toronto has been outscored 34-25 over its previous 10 games, an uncomfortable margin for a team that defines itself by offensive skill. To remedy that, the Leafs are zeroing in on their most glaring deficiencies.
“[At our best], we're competing hard and the attention to detail, the focus, is there,” said team captain John Tavares. “It's just winning some of those battles and winning those pucks and winning races that are crucial. We have to find ways to get the puck more along the boards, in the corners, fighting for the interior of the ice and getting better quality chances that way and defending hard in that area.”
Tavares is currently in his second five-game goalless drought in four weeks, putting his output well below personal expectations. But like the rest of his team, Tavares is staying optimistic about a turnaround.
“Team-wise and individually, there are lots of ups and downs,” he said. “You can beat yourself down about it, worry about a lot of things, but I think just trying to come with the same attitude every day is important. It's a new day, it's a new opportunity, and you’re doing everything you can to give yourself the best opportunity for success and playing as hard as we can.”
“You don't fix your problems overnight,” added Jason Spezza. “So I think we just have to understand what we need to work on and we have to try to play our best game tonight. It's an overall attitude; it's an overall just raising your intensity. [There's still time] to correct and to talk and to have tough conversations in the locker room and, I think, a big growing point for our team.”