By Chris Johnston
UNIONDALE, N.Y. — By just about every measure the Toronto Maple Leafs are falling short of expectations this season.
Most notably, that includes their own.
“We’re two [points] away, we need this,” Mike Babcock said Wednesday, before watching his team self-combust during a 5-4 loss to the New York Islanders inside a lively Nassau Coliseum.
They played well enough to win for vast stretches of the game and didn’t. That’s become a worrying trend with one quarter of the schedule basically gone.
Babcock identified the 20-game mark as the point in the season where the Leafs had to figure out “what we hang our hat on.” Then they stumbled into it with three straight losses and had banked just 22 points — two behind the pace the head coach tracks in five-game segments for his players.
“Normally after 20 games … you’ve got to try to get yourself established [so] you know what you are and you also want to be in a good position so you’re not under duress,” Babcock said earlier this month.
Well, there is some duress building here.
It’s not as if the Leafs were outclassed on Long Island, but they need to own the mistakes that produced another empty result. The specialty teams were abysmal. Two key turnovers undid more than 30 minutes of strong work in the opening two periods.
“It just seems like when we do make a mistake we’re getting burned,” said captain John Tavares, who was serenaded with chants of ‘Barzy’s better!’ and ‘We don’t need you!’ during his third visit back in Leafs colours.
“I think we have confidence in this group, in the team, in the room,” said defenceman Jake Muzzin. “We’re just having some weird lapses throughout the game and it’s costing us. I think we just have to be sharper throughout a full 60 [minutes], shift to shift, more focused, better preparation I think and we’ll come out on top in these games.”
They held the Islanders to just three shot attempts in the first 15 minutes of the game … and still found themselves trailing 2-0 at the first intermission.
They surrendered just two shots on goal during a 16-minute surge to open the second period … and were down 3-2 after 40 minutes.
This was a case of one step forward, two steps back, and it will test the patience of a management group that prizes process over results. That’s a sensible philosophy to adopt, but it can’t be easy to live by when a team with Stanley Cup aspirations is currently on the wrong side of the projected playoff cutoff line.
“We’re not where we want to be,” said Tavares. “I think we obviously want to play a lot better, a lot more consistent, and we’ve got to keep working to find a way.”
They are entering a crucible of games against strong teams. The next five-game segment sees them host Boston before visiting Pittsburgh, Vegas, Arizona and Colorado.
It will require more attention to detail than they displayed against the 13-3-1 Islanders — a stingy opponent that didn’t even surrender a shot during two Toronto power plays and went 2-for-3 with the man advantage.
“We lost the special-teams battle, obviously, and that’s pretty much the game there,” said Leafs winger Zach Hyman, who made his season debut after undergoing ACL surgery in April. “There’s some good things to take away from that game, but there were also some mental lapses we had. It was close.”
They turned a dominant start into a 1-0 deficit when Andreas Johnsson and William Nylander had a mix-up while exiting the defensive zone under limited pressure. Johnsson tossed the puck to no-man’s land, a scrambling Nylander was beaten by Jordan Eberle in transition and Mathew Barzal had an empty net to shoot at after taking a cross-ice pass from Eberle.
Andreas Johnsson turns puck over, Mathew Barzal buries Jordan Eberle pass“I didn’t know he was going to drop it,” Nylander said of the botched exit with Johnsson. “If I would have known, I would have been there. It’s actually the right play, but I wasn’t ready for it.”
Despite falling behind 2-0, the Leafs battled their way back with a dominant second period and briefly tied the game.
Then they got in their own way again.
Tyson Barrie got caught trying to jump the zone while his partner Muzzin lunged for the puck. When it got turned back the other way, Anthony Beauvillier found himself wide open at the edge of the crease and slid it between Frederik Andersen’s legs for his second goal of the night.
“So they score,” said Muzzin. “We can’t let that kill the will in here or give them momentum.”
In the third period, they started slowly and could barely even execute a zone entry after drawing an early power play. Once they went down a man soon after, Derick Brassard scored for the Islanders.
“It all kind of funnels together,” said Tavares. “When one link in the chain isn’t there, everything else is affected.”
The Leafs have high-end talent and some encouraging underlying numbers, such as the NHL’s third-best Corsi rating at 53.2 per cent. But they don’t look quite so dominant when you factor in an expected goals mark of 49.2 per cent.
They had a 57-shot effort during Sunday’s 5-4 loss in Chicago and had a great chance to bounce back against the Islanders — jumping on their opponent early. Yet they failed to turn promise into results again.
“We were quick, in the zone, managed the puck through the neutral zone, we got on the forecheck,” said Muzzin. “It’s doing it for 60 [minutes] … every shift. You take a shift off, you give good players good opportunities to score, they’re going to do it. It’s a battle of will: ‘Who’s going to wear the other team down the most at the end of the day? Who’s not going to make as many mistakes?’
“We cut those little mistakes out, I think we win a lot more hockey games.”
What they’re doing now isn’t cutting it.