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Maple Leafs' Early Woes Might Have Shown How Irrelevant the North Division Was

Following another difficult loss to an American team, the Toronto Maple Leafs are getting a hard lesson in what they missed by playing games exclusively in Canada last season.

CHICAGO -- Maybe it was a mirage, but last year's COVID-19-truncated season that saw the Toronto Maple Leafs only take on their six Canadian counterparts may not have done enough to prepare them for the other 25 teams in the NHL.

The Leafs dropped a 4-1 decision to the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday. It was their fourth consecutive loss and they fell to 0-3-1 against their four American opponents this season.

The games haven't been pretty, with the lowest point hitting at the first of the team's three-game road trip in Pittsburgh. The Maple Leafs fell 7-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were without five core players that included stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said his confidence grew despite the loss in Raleigh, as they got a sense of what it was like to play against a Stanley Cup contender.

"I look at last season and we really didn't face something like this, really, until it counted the most and we didn't find our way out of that one." Keefe said after holding practice at United Center in Chicago on Tuesday.

The Maple Leafs had a 35-14-7 record last season before crashing out of the playoffs in the first round against the Montreal Canadiens. With a core roster that remained mostly unchanged, the Maple Leafs were expected by many to remain a goal-scoring offensive powerhouse that would finish at or near the top of the overall standings.

That could still happen if they can find their confidence and score goals.

"I think a big thing for our guys is realizing that we get out of this as a team," Maple Leafs forward Jason Spezza said. "We're not looking for one or two guys to climb us out of this."

Toronto has 13 goals in seven games. Their 1.86 goals per game ranks 29th in the league through Monday's contests. 

Auston Matthews scored his first goal of the season in Raleigh on Monday. Mitch Marner has yet to score this season and his goalless drought extends to the last regular-season game of 2020-'21.

"We're trying to just help support Mitch and our team's trying to support each other all the way through it," Keefe said. "You've got to just stick within the team structure and the team system and play hard. Be competitive. Overall, those players are just too good to not break free. So that's really all we're looking for."

The 38-year-old Spezza is the oldest player on the Maple Leafs. In his third stint of signing minimum-salary contracts, he is the team leader with three goals this season.

Although his production has been impressive, it's not the stats one comes to expect from a team that has Matthews, Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares.

As seen on the Amazon Prime series 'All or Nothing', there are times when Keefe leaned on Spezza to help get a sense of the group. The Maple Leafs forward has taken it upon himself to communicate with his teammates and stressed has stressed how some early adversity can help the group build character.

He specifically pointed to the Tampa Bay Lightning's Stanely Cup Championship in 2020. The previous season saw the club suffer an embarrassing first-round sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets. They played .500 hockey for much of the start before losing six out of eight games. After that difficult stretch, they went on a run in the latter half and did not look back.

"Nobody goes the whole year and doesn't have any hiccups and your hiccups come at different times," Spezza said. "If we are a team like we think we are, this is just going to be a blip and something we look back on as a learning experience.

"But right now, it's hard. And right now we have to dig in and right now have to do a little more and be a little ugly in our game to get back on track. And then once we get back on track, then you have a blueprint of what it feels like to win games consistently."

Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas pointed to the same Tampa Bay rise from the ashes of embarrassment following his team's first-round exit to Montreal in May. And while the Leafs had an impressive regular season, there was always that caveat of what it meant when they only played against six other teams. 

The Maple Leafs were third in the Atlantic Division with a 36-25-9 record when the pandemic hit. At 78 points they were on the bubble with the fourth and fifth place teams in the Metropolitan Division 81 points.

Toronto wraps up its three-game road trip on Wednesday against a struggling Chicago Blackhawks team. To say the team is desperate for a win would be an understatement. But the more the team plays, the more I question the validity of the data you can take from the 2021 season for the Maple Leafs.

Mrazek on track

Petr Mrazek took part in his first full practice since injuring his groin in his team debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Oct. 14.

Expected to be out for a minimum of 14 days, Mrazek said the level of treatment he's received for his injury by the Maple Leafs is unlike anything he's ever experienced before.

"Thanks to these guys I'm going to be back sooner than later," Mrazek said.

The goaltender will not dress against the Blackhawks. Jack Campbell will start a goal after he took Tuesday's practice session off for maintenance.

Power-play tweak

The Maple Leafs made a minor change on the top unit on Wednesday by moving a trio of forwards around. Marner, who had been experimenting in the bumper position moved to the right flank while Nylander moved to the bumper spot.

Matthews, who was at the right flank moved to the left.

Keefe said he hadn't decided if the team will actually implement the change against the Blackhawks, but if they wanted to make a mid-change, they had a chance to get some reps in to have the option available.

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