Even head coach Paul Maurice kept the mood light, when one would have perhaps expected a more stern approach following back-to-back hammerings at the hands of the Ottawa Senators.
“You can’t have your foot on it all the time,” the Leafs coach said prior to Saturday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens. “Clearly there were things that weren’t very good but we addressed it and after you address it you move on to the next game. We’ve discussed the happenings of the last two games and what happens if we continue to go forward.”
If the Leafs continue to give up nearly five goals a game, then things are going to get uglier. After opening the season allowing only seven goals against in four games, Toronto has been scored upon 33 times in its last seven games, dropping the Leafs to 24th in the 30-team NHL with an average of 3.64 goals against per game.
“There are some things we’re doing now that we weren’t doing four games ago,” Maurice said. “And it’s pretty consistent. Our forwards our putting our defencemen in such a difficult position to defend that they are looking porous to say the least. We’re getting caught standing still against speed.”
The Leafs want to get back to what they were doing earlier in the season, attacking more aggressively on the forecheck and keeping the opposing team on their heels. The Leafs drove the net often earlier this season and it created turnovers from the opposition, not to mention keeping the other team from coming out of their own zone comfortably for their own attacks.
What’s transpired in recent games is that the Leafs aren’t being as aggressive on their forecheck, which has allowed the other team more time to set up and skate out. The Leafs are spending more time in their own zone than they were earlier this year.
“We’re making it easy on teams to score on us right now,” explained Leafs centre Michael Peca, a former Selke Trophy winner as the NHL’s top defensive forward. “And that stems from all areas of the ice. Our defensive zone coverage, I think overall, hasn’t been too bad. We’re giving up goals off the rush. When you give up goals off the rush that means you’re not doing a good enough job in the offensive zone sustaining pressure and getting pucks in deep.
“And just not backchecking hard enough in certain areas to allow your defencemen to step up and make plays at our blue-line.”
The Leafs worked on drills Friday that had them coming out of their own zone in tighter five-man units. What they want to avoid is having large gaps of ice between the forwards and defencemen, which is what the Senators exposed so ruthlessly in 6-2 and 7-2 beatings this week. It doesn’t get any easier Saturday night (7 p.m.) with an equally speedy team in the Canadiens (5-2-2).
“I thought we played very well against Montreal when they were in town,” said Maurice, citing a 3-2 shootout loss to the Habs on Oct. 7. “I know we can handle their speed. The difference lately is that we’re not showing any. When we played well earlier people were saying, ‘I didn’t know you guys were that fast.’ We haven’t heard that in the last week. That means we’re not skating as hard as we can.”
The Leafs hope to get right on top of the Montreal defencemen in their own zone, forcing them to make quick decisions with the puck. They also want to attack the Montreal net in numbers. It’s all about not allowing the speedy Canadiens to get their flow going on their counter-attacks. They want to suffocate Montreal’s transition game.
“Offensive zone play is as important defensively as defensive zone play,” Peca said. “When you’re positioned offensively to score goals you’re also going to be in a defensive position. If they all of a sudden get a turnover you’re in a position right away to allow your defencemen to step up and kill their opportunity that they may have coming through the neutral zone.
“That’s where teams like Ottawa and Montreal thrive, is allowing them to skate through the neutral zone and build up that speed they get off the rush.”
Canadiens head coach Guy Carbonneau has watched the video and knows where he wants his team Saturday, in the Toronto end putting pressure on a blue-line that hasn’t looked very good. But he’s also weary of a desperate Leafs team.
“They’re struggling and they just had two big losses,” Carbonneau said after Montreal’s practice. “They’ll be coming in and playing with some anger. But we have to take advantage of that as well and try to put them on their heels right away.”
Toronto’s problems, meanwhile, aren’t limited to their defensive play. The Leafs’ power play, their bread and butter last season, has slipped all the way down to 22nd overall in the NHL. Bad defence and a bad power play is a toxic combination.
“We’ve been struggling of late for sure,” said star defenceman Bryan McCabe, who anchors the man advantage. “Special teams are a huge part of the game nowadays. We’re not putting them in right now and that hurts the team.”
McCabe and fellow blue-liner Tomas Kaberle have struggled at both ends of the ice of late, not what’s expected of the two highly paid defencemen. McCabe ranked second in the NHL with 19 giveaways before games Friday night.
“We’ve got to be at our best every night and obviously the past couple of games we haven’t been,” said McCabe, who is earning US$7.15 million this season. “We are the veteran guys back there and we have to lead by example, especially with young guys in the lineup. It hasn’t been good enough the last two nights and the both of us have to pick up our games.”
The Leafs will likely give starting goalie Andrew Raycroft a rest Saturday. Backup J.S. Aubin told reporters after practice that he was starting although Maurice would not confirm that.
“I haven’t made that decision yet,” said Maurice.