By DAVID SHOALTS
Monday, December 10, 2018
The extended stretch on the road, beginning Tuesday against the Carolina Hurricanes, could not have come at a better time for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
There were too many signs they were susceptible to outside influences, that they still have much to learn despite all the rosy projections and staying at home among the usual noise would not help in that regard. Better to get on the road for the week ahead and clear all those young minds on the team.
The most immediate problem that needs to be nipped in the bud was all of that misplaced aggression against the Boston Bruins on Saturday. Put aside the rare bad outing by goaltender Frederik Andersen and it was largely responsible for the 6-3 loss at TD Garden, the most unfriendly rink in the NHL for this edition of the Leafs.
While there was much provocation from the Bruins, it certainly appears the Leafs were listening a little too much to the fuss on social and conventional media after Detroit Red Wings defenceman Niklas Kronwall sent Auston Matthews into the boards in last Thursday's home loss.
There was no shortage of fans screaming on social media about the lack of retribution by any of Matthews's teammates. Certain media types also got into the act, moaning about how in the good old days someone would have quickly clocked Kronwall.
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock at first dismissed such talk and then succumbed at the morning skate before the Bruins game.
"In the old days, what you used to do is you could skate around in warm-up, you could growl at each other and it actually made a difference because there was someone out there that could actually whack you," Babcock said. "It doesn't work like that now and you're not expected, if someone hits you hard, you're not expected to take a penalty.
You're expected to keep playing, so it's different."
Bruins defenceman Charlie McAvoy, himself just back in action after a concussion, went after Leafs star Mitch Marner on the first shift of the game. That prompted a third-period revenge hit on McAvoy from Leafs winger Zach Hyman, who wound up fighting another Bruin and getting tossed from the game.
Hyman had a hearing with the NHL department of player safety on Sunday and was suspended for two games.
And so it went. The Leafs wound up taking five penalties in the second period. They allowed two goals to the Bruins in that stretch, one of them on the power play. When you are short-handed for that long it also limits your scoring chances, although at the end of the game the Leafs didn't see much wrong with their approach.
"I liked the way we responded and [stuck] up for each other," Andersen said. "Hopefully it'll be something that can tighten the group even more in the future."
Well, Babcock didn't seem to see it that way. He might have been thinking the Leafs just got back to full strength with William Nylander's return and all they have to show for it are two consecutive losses to teams below them in the standings.
That does not bode well for Thursday's meeting with their Atlantic Division rival, and the first-place team over all in the NHL, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"We just had a real good run where we got five wins and an overtime loss and now we've got to regroup," Babcock said.
"You want your ups to be longer than your downs and sometimes when you don't play as good it's a good message to you, you've got to be a lot better.
"I think we've got to be a lot more competitive than we were the last two nights. It's great that we had a good little run there, now we've got to regroup and have another one."
Regrouping means paying attention to how teams such as the Bruins and a few others have figured out how to beat the Leafs by fore-checking hard and then plugging up the neutral zone so the Leaf skaters can't get moving.
Thursday's game is the first of the season against the Lightning, who have a six-game winning streak going and opened a six-point gap in the Atlantic race over the second-place Leafs.
The Bolts can be expected to serve up the same treatment to Toronto.
"You've just got to be patient," Leafs centre John Tavares said. "Good teams with good structure don't give you the middle of the ice very much and clog up the neutral zone, and have a good counter game.
"You've just got to be patient and not play them hard and not give them any easy odd-man rushes or any time and space, especially with some of the weapons that they have. We just didn't do a good enough job of that [against Boston]."