It’s a slight understatement to say that the Toronto Maple Leafs have had a rough time as of late, losing five straight games entering Thursday’s game against Dallas and only recording a point in two of those match-ups. Sure, you can attribute some of that to the injuries they’ve suffered to key players. But no team – at least no professional team – likes to make excuses.
There were obvious problems that the team faced during the elongated losing streak. For one, they spent too much time in their own end. They were consistently outshot. And for the lack of a better term, they simply didn’t show up. This alone has left questions that realistically can’t be answered by anyone, including the baffled Maple Leafs coach.
“Did we give ourselves a chance tonight?” Randy Carlyle said about his team’s play against San Jose on Tuesday. “We gave ourselves a chance for about half of the game. I think it was a measuring stick. That’s how far we have to go. It’s the way the elite teams play in the league.”
Carlyle has continually asked for a better effort from his team. From day one of the season, he hasn’t accepted that the Leafs can’t improve in one area or another. So it didn’t come as a surprise when Carlyle said prior to Thursday’s game against the Dallas Stars that his team needed to outplay their evening opponents.
Now, even though the Leafs stole the extra point in overtime, there was a lot to take away from this game. Some of it was good. But surely, Carlyle will still be unimpressed with other aspects of their game.
Maple Leafs Need to Shoot For More
The first period was arguably one of the best periods the Leafs have played over their losing streak. Cody Franson, who has been an assist machine thus far, rung a shot of the post early and really set the tone for his team. Although the Leafs were outshot 15-7 in the period, they had better scoring chances and really held the zone by forechecking hard along the boards and in the corners.
But the team didn’t really show up until the midway mark of the period, recording just one shot on goal up until that point. That’s been one of the biggest problems for the Leafs so far this season. In fact, it was a game against Columbus that the Leafs went the entire third period without recording a single shot that ultimately started the losing streak.
The rest of the game wasn’t much different. The Leafs were outshot again with Jonathan Bernier making some incredible stops. But the Leafs did have the better scoring chances.
They were outshot in the second 12-8 and again in the third 17-7. However, even though the team is only averaging 26.5 shots per game – a league low – the Leafs took advantage of their fewer opportunities. That’s something they’ve had trouble doing over their five-game losing streak.
Maple Leafs: Keep Your Composure
The penalty kill has been good part of their game, working overtime lately. It started off similarly Thursday against the Stars. After Dion Phaneuf and Jamie Benn went off for roughing, Franson took a high-sticking minor that put his team down a man – a penalty his mates were able to kill off.
But it was also their penalty kill that cost them the tying goal late in the third period. After Jay McClement, their top penalty killer, got two minutes for tripping Tyler Seguin, Stars’ Shawn Horcoff tied the game.
Penalties and defensive breakdowns have been problematic for the Leafs. Both leading to goals on Thursday against Dallas and certainly the reason behind many goals against during the team’s downward spiral.
Erik Cole ties the game; takes advantage of a terrible Leafs' line change.
— Rob Del Mundo (@Rob_DelMundo) December 6, 2013
Kadri’s Play Has Upside
Although it’s been brought into question, quite often this season, Kadri’s confidence could be on it’s way back. Or maybe he’s just found something more to play for. The fact is, his suspension earlier this season for hitting Wild goalie Nicklas Backstrom may have been a season low for the young Leaf forward.
Since signing his big contract in the offseason, two years and close to $6-millon, he’s displayed far less offensive skills than what’s been expected of him. Including tonight, the London native has recorded nine goals and 10 assists so far this season, putting together offensive surges but no consistent play.
But it’s his confidence, the chirping at opponents, that leads the young sniper to play successfully. He plays a physical game. He’s hard on the puck, driving to the net and drawing penalties because of his skillful stick work.
For Carlyle’s Leafs, more players are going to have to find this second gear. In the absence of teammates like Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, and Dave Bolland, others have to step up. Phil Kessel’s second period assist on Kadri’s goal pushed his point streak to five games, but he can’t carry the team. Nor can any other single player be the saviour for the struggling Leafs. What they need, is to forget about the injuries and focus on their on-ice product.
“The way we have to shift it is, the focus has to go on the players that are playing, not the players that aren’t playing,” said Carlyle regarding the increasing number of injuries. “We can’t change that. That’s our job and that’s our mandate for our coaching staff is to focus on the things that we have control over, and that’s what we have control over.”
MAPLE LEAFS WIN IT! God that feels great to say. Trevor Smith tips in it the net. The losing streak is OVER! #TMLtalk
— simon taylor (@simontoddtaylor) December 6, 2013
So with the win Thursday against the Stars and the fans behind them, the Leafs will trudge on. Taking it game by game the hope is that role players will step up each and every night. It will be a rough month of December, but if Thursday’s game is any indication of what the team can do, their hard play and strong penalty kill will have to play a huge part in their fight to grab every point possible in the NHL standings.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.