Sunday, 14 March 2021

Cooling Off

As I'm sure you're aware, HBIC feels very little remorse when the Toronto Maple Leafs lose. After the Winnipeg Jets stormed into Toronto and took five of six possible points from the team that every Toronto-based national sports network - aka all of them - seems to believe are destined for Stanley Cup glory, the Maple Leafs were supposed to soothe those wounds with a dose of the Ottawa Senators who are at the bottom of the North Division. Instead, the Senators rose to the occasion and took advantage of a Toronto team that played the second-half of a back-to-back set, beating the Leafs 4-3 to end Toronto's week with an exclamation point.

That's a shame, ain't it?

All jokes aside, there should be some worry in the Center of the Universe when it comes to their beloved team because the Jets and the Senators over the last two days have shown that this Leafs team is not as invincible as Toronto sports media may have led you to believe. While the Leafs can score goals, they haven't been doing so with the frequency seen in previous games and that's putting more pressure on the defence and goaltending. As seen tonight against Ottawa, if Fredrik Andersen isn't in net, there should be some cause for concern.

I can sit here and defend the Leafs and say they were tired from the night before and the tough three-game set against the Winnipeg Jets, but we all know none of the players would accept that excuse for what happened tonight. Perhaps they could have been overlooking the Senators and aiming towards a week off with their next game on Friday, but that too would likely be summarily dismissed by the Leafs staff and players. Excuses aren't going to win anyone games, so no one should accept them.

After getting Hellbuyck-ed by the Jets in a couple of games this week, giveaways, missed defensive assignments, poor communication, and some rather porous goaltending have plagued the Leafs since they outclassed the Edmonton Oilers a couple of weeks ago. Maybe this is one of those "Hockey Gods" things where the Leafs got the fortuitous bounces only to see a few of those bounces go against them in recent weeks. Maybe it's mental fatigue setting in when it comes to execution and communication after playing nine games in 15 nights. Perhaps it was the odd routine-busting decision to stay in Toronto after the loss to the Jets last night and fly into Ottawa this morning. Whatever it is, the Leafs weren't sharp by any measure, and it cost them early and often in this game.

The Senators scored two goals in seven seconds, the second of which barely looked like a shot, as they chased the rather ineffective Michael Hutchinson from the net, pushing Andersen back to work on a night where he was supposed to watch from the bench. A 2-0 hole early in the first period was likely not how Sheldon Keefe drew this game up, and it meant that the Leafs would have to dig deep to climb out that hole.

There was far too much time and space given to Tim St├╝tzle on the power-play in the second period who went tape-to-tape with Drake Batherson as Batherson scored a beauty to make it 3-1, but it should be noted that Mike Reilly and Jake Muzzin both failed to clear the zone earlier in the sequence as well. This attention to detail was missing in the Saturday game against the Jets and it showed up again Sunday night in Ottawa.

Less than a minute later, TJ Brodie failed to tie up Batherson in front of the net, and Batherson chipped his second of the game past Andersen as Brodie seemed bewildered as to how the puck ended up behind Andersen. Again, a small detail like securing an opponent's stick came back to haunt the Leafs as the Senators went up 4-1, and it's one of those easy-to-make plays that the coaching staff will point out to Brodie on Monday.

Three goals on plays where Leafs players are normally better doesn't help the overall record despite the Leafs scoring twice late. The urgency should have been there from the moment the puck was dropped, but it never materialized until the final few minutes of the contest with the Senators leading by three goals. For a team that was so good in holidng the Oilers' most potent stars off the scoresheet in outscoring them 13-1 over those three contests, the 9-3 shellacking the Leafs took over the two games this weekend looked like the polar opposite of what was seen against Edmonton where the Leafs looked plugged into the the game.

If there is some good to come out of this, the Leafs have four days to correct these mental lapses and fix their game. Some much-needed rest and tending to bumps and bruises will also happen over the next few days, so the North Division should be ready for a revitalized team come next weekend when the Leafs get back to action.

They'll need to be ready, too, as they'll face the reinvigorated Calgary Flames who look like a much different, far more physical team under Darryl Sutter after collecting two gritty wins against the Montreal Canadiens. Sutter will have the Flames using their next two games against Edmonton followed by two against the Leafs as measuring sticks, so the Leafs would be wise to watch the Battle of Alberta this week in preparing for the Flames' visit to the ACC.

As for their lead in the North Division, the Leafs still hold a four-point lead over the Winnipeg Jets for top spot, but win percentages are even and the Jets hold three games in-hand. Winnipeg has three games this week - two at home against Montreal and one in Edmonton - before Toronto faces Calgary, so it's possible that Toronto may face Calgary as the second-place team if either Edmonton or Winnipeg can string together a few wins before Friday. Fortunes can turn that fast in these divisions where every point counts.

Imagine the Toronto sports media's cries of woe if the Leafs fall to second- or third-place in the division before Friday? And add to that a loss to the Flames on Friday that only compunds that problem?

That'd be a real shame to see that.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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