For Michael Peca, that’s the only explanation needed for Toronto’s flat effort in a 4-1 loss to Colorado on Wednesday night. The Maple Leafs didn’t show many signs of life against the Avs, but the veteran Peca believes it’s bound to happen to every team over a long season. “It’s the way of life,” he said Thursday. “You’re never going to do anything perfectly all the time or be happy with what you do all the time.
“I wake up some days and have days when I’m not the best husband or the best dad or the best hockey player. That just happens.”
It doesn’t mean he or any of the Leafs were happy with their play against the Avalanche.
Coach Paul Maurice spent Thursday’s practice emphasizing the importance of speed to his team. He’s not really looking for pure speed in a traditional sense – guys like Peca aren’t about to start winning races against the league’s fastest skaters.
Instead the Leafs are aiming to get the most out of what they have, which is done in large part through crisp, hard passes. When the puck is passed in that manner to a player moving his feet, he shouldn’t have to slow down to receive it.
“It’s speed in the right areas,” said Peca. “Even if you’re not the fastest player, if you’re playing a simple game you can keep your speed up.
“Anybody’s going to be fast in that system.”
Toronto is heading into a packed stretch of its schedule that will test the team’s stamina. Starting with Friday’s game in Columbus, the Maple Leafs play six times in 11 days and will face the Ottawa Senators twice and the Montreal Canadiens once during that period.
They’re going to need get back to a high-energy game as they look to improve on a 3-2-2 record.
“Any rink you go in and any team you play nowadays, it’s a tough test,” said Peca. “With the parity in the league today, the team that’s consistently outworking other teams is the one that has the best chance of winning.
“That’s what our focus is on.”
One way the Leafs can accomplish that is by quickly putting Wednesday’s poor effort behind them.
Toronto entered the game having taken more shots than anybody else in the league and then managed only five in the first period against Colorado’s Peter Budaj. The Maple Leafs believe it was an aberration.
“You’ve just got to be willing to deal with the ups and the downs,” said defenceman Brendan Bell. “There’s a long way to go.”
In Columbus, the Leafs will face a Blue Jackets team that has played just once in the past 10 days.
Gerrard Gallant has been putting his squad through some high-energy practices but it would be understandable if Columbus was a bit out of synch on Friday night.
Toronto defenceman Bryan McCabe, for one, prefers busy stretches of games to long layoffs.
“I think overall you’d like to be playing,” he said. “No one likes to have three or four days between games, especially when you’re playing well. It’s tough to keep that spark going.”
Maurice has a few different options at his disposal to help spark his team.
He hinted Thursday that the Leafs could soon have rugged winger Ben Ondrus in the lineup for the first time this season. Ondrus is awaiting medical clearance for a rib injury.
He will be used in a checking role and Maurice thinks the 24-year-old can get adjusted to it just as quickly with the Leafs as he can with their Marlies farm team.
“You can hit just as hard here as you can in the (AHL),” said Maurice. “We’re not going to be bringing him in to drive the power play.”
Ondrus would be a candidate to join the team’s shutdown line with Peca and Chad Kilger, which would free up Alex Steen to take on a more offensive role. Maurice has indicated he wants to give Steen a chance to play at both ends of the ice.
No matter how it shakes out, the coach believes any variation of the lineup can win once it gets used to consistently playing hard.
“Playing the way we’re going to play is not an easy way to play,” Maurice explained.
There’s a learning curve, and you can plot Wednesday’s poor effort somewhere on it.
Peca has played 699 NHL games and claims that he can still rarely see those sort of nights coming.
“It sneaks up on all of us,” he said. “You just look at it and wonder, ‘How’d it happen?”‘
And how you can keep it from happening again.