TORONTO – The more delusional portions of the Toronto Maple Leafs fan base had started to dream big during an impressive run of five wins in six games.
Their team was humming along, scoring goals, playing solid defence. Playoffs, why not?
Then came the current three-game losing streak to restore some reality and remind the diehards of why they shouldn’t get too excited over such a small sample size.
Good teams are able to maintain good habits over long stretches. The Maple Leafs enjoyed success by putting the puck on goal and chasing the rebound with vigour, only to abandon the approach in more recent outings.
Why the change?
“That’s the habit of a mediocre team. Mediocre teams aren’t consistent. We have to get better with that,” head coach Ron Wilson said Monday after practice. “Mediocre is running around .500 and that’s what we are.
“That’s not what we want to be but that’s the reality of it right now.”
So the Maple Leafs returned to basics at practice Monday, focusing on attacking the net and creating chances off scrambles in front of the goal.
Several drills worked on creating havoc in the slot and that’s precisely what Wilson expects his team to do Tuesday against the visiting Atlanta Thrashers (7:30 p.m. ET).
The Maple Leafs scored 27 times in winning five of six but have just four goals in the three losses since.
“You get drunk on your success … and it almost seemed easy,” said Wilson. “After talking about it, it just kind of fades away and we just got to do a reset and start over.”
Hurting the Leafs cause is the freak eye injury suffered by leading scorer Matt Stajan before Saturday’s practice in Washington that will sideline him for a week or two.
The team’s No. 1 centre was walking away from a commonly used warm-up drill involving a soccer ball when he was struck in the right eye, suffering an injury known as hyphema, or bleeding inside the eye.
“It was pretty scary, I couldn’t see for a couple of hours after it happened, it’s not a good feeling,” said Stajan. “It’s slowly gotten better, there’s still some fluid in there, blurred vision, so I’ve got to wait for that to clear.
“I wouldn’t be able to do much for probably a week here.”
With Nik Antropov also missing Monday’s practice with an undisclosed illness, John Mitchell and Lee Stempniak skated on the top unit with Alexei Ponikarovsky.
Others will have to pick up the slack.
“When we were scoring goals we were doing certain things – shooting the puck, going to the net, establishing a forecheck,” said winger Jason Blake. “Maybe we’ve gotten away from that the last three games and it’s cost us three losses.”
Of course keeping the puck out of the net has also been a concern of late, as the Maple Leafs have given up 16 goals during the current skid.
A couple of glaring giveaways helped seal Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the Capitals and with the team banged up on the back end, Wilson said he doesn’t have the depth to make lineup changes right now.
Instead, he’ll have to hope his players make smarter decisions with the puck in their own end, something the team knows it needs to do.
“We can’t turn the puck over in our zone and the neutral zone, that’s huge,” said defenceman Pavel Kubina, who played in career game No. 700 Sunday. “Every time you turn the puck over in your zone pretty much they end up with a chance.”
Notes: Rookie defenceman Luke Schenn (sprained knee) could be back in the Maple Leafs lineup sometime next week. He practised with his teammates Monday, but isn’t ready for contact just yet. “He’s probably a week away,” said Wilson. “With a knee injury like that you don’t want to rush him along because a setback could keep him off the ice for another month. We don’t need that.”