Maple Leafs hope shaky starts won't continue over final 11 games
Toronto has fewest games left of all Eastern playoff contenders
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, it's time to rest, not panic.
Losers of three in a row, the Leafs had a full day off Thursday after a rough run of six games in six cities in 10 days. They'll now attempt to regroup before an already tenuous playoff picture gets more dicey.
"First thing is get rest. It's been a gruelling stretch, a ton of travel, a lot of tough games where we're seeing a lot of teams' best efforts here," winger Joffrey Lupul said. "Get some rest and then come back refocused and get some of that confidence back that we had going to the West Coast."
Confidence in the Leafs might be waning from the outside after losing to the Washington Capitals, Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning. But within the locker-room Wednesday night there was plenty of belief that those games featured some positive elements to build on.
"No sense in panicking," said goaltender James Reimer, who has been thrust into the starting role since Jonathan Bernier was injured last week. "I think we've played some good hockey in the last three games, at times, and we know what we can do. I obviously believe in our team, we all believe in each other.
"It's a case where, I think, with some fresh legs and kind of a little break here and get back at it, we'll be right back on top of our game again."
Finding the top of their game is paramount to the Leafs, who occupy the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference after falling out of the top three in the Atlantic Division. They were as high as second, three points up on the Lightning and Montreal Canadiens, after beating the Kings in Los Angeles on March 13.
In the three games since, Toronto has given up the first goal in each and struggled with defensive breakdowns in front of Reimer.
Fixing the brutal starts might be the first order of business going into Saturday's game against the Montreal Canadiens on Hockey Night in Canada (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7 p.m. ET).
"We've had a trend over the last three games where we seem like we're starting a little sluggish or we're not getting the exact start that we're wanting," winger Mason Raymond said. "I thought later in [Lightning] game we showed that desperation, but we need that for 60 minutes. I think at the end of the day for me, [the key is] playing the 60 minutes in that desperation mode."
Finding that "desperation mode" could have a lot do to with having more energy in reserve. At least that's coach Randy Carlyle's hope after watching his team run on empty.
"We just come off a 10-day road trip and we play tonight off a back-to-back," Carlyle said Wednesday night following a 5-3 loss to Tampa Bay. "That's not an excuse, but it's a trying situation, and it's not easy."
The Leafs have also made life hard on themselves by giving stars like Steven Stamkos way too much room close to the net. Defensive breakdowns like the ones that led to Stamkos's hat trick are likely on the to-do list for Friday's practice.
"It comes down to doing the basic things, every night doing the simple things," defenceman Tim Gleason said. "I think as a group of five, we really have to button down, get pucks out when we can and do the simple things in our zone and the offence will take care of itself and we'll get our chances."
If the Leafs are getting offensive chances, there's enough firepower from Phil Kessel (35 goals) down the lineup to make things happen. But Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin and defenceman Jake Gardiner (five goals in seven games) scored against Tampa Bay and it wasn't enough.
Only minutes after that defeat, players wanted to move on and separate themselves from this losing streak. The best way to do so is finding a winning recipe — before it gets too late.
The Leafs have played 71 games, the most of any team in contention in the East, which also means they no longer control their playoff hopes. The Detroit Red Wings, who visit Air Canada Centre on March 29, are in the driver's seat if they keep winning.
That's not a comfortable spot to be in with just 11 games remaining in the regular season. These are almost desperate times in Toronto.
"Obviously we haven't played as well as we need to, and we're not sitting here saying that we're playing the type of hockey that is required to have success," Carlyle said. "Well, we lost three games in a row and if we show the desperation that we displayed in the last half of the game for 60 minutes, we surely could improve our chances. That's for sure."