PITTSBURGH — The Maple Leafs do not exist in a world of calm, rational thought. They exist in a world of extremes. A world where they are either an elite roster where a Stanley Cup is their inevitable destiny, or a world where everything about them is a five-alarm dumpster fire where they have to trade everyone and completely change everything about them.
They have experienced both extremes during this season.
It started with the hopelessness that ultimately ended the Mike Babcock era.
The first 20 games under new coach Sheldon Keefe brought more goals, more wins, and a rapid climb up the standings.
Now, after a completely inept 5-2 loss to the Penguins Tuesday night (against a Penguins team that was already playing without Jake Guentzel, Brian Dumoulin, and John Marino, and then found out it would not have Evgeni Malkin 25 minutes before puck drop) the inferno is not only back, it is raging.
And while the Maple Leafs are dealing with their own share of injury issues (Morgan Rielly, Andreas Johnsson) it shouldn’t have resulted in an effort like that.
That loss also came on the heels of an ugly 5-2 defeat to a hapless Sabres team, and continued a disappointing February that has seen the team win just four out of 10 games. Only one of those wins (a 4-2 win over the Senators) came in regulation. Things seemed to hit rock bottom mid-way through the second period on Tuesday when, after failing to score on an eighty-five second 5-on-3 power play, they were completely embarrassed in their own zone to fall behind 5-0. The entire sequence was the hockey equivalent of the Penguins emphatically dunking on the Maple Leafs. At that point they never seemed further away from where they should be.
Maple Leafs players were grilled on everything afterward, from the urgency they need to display, to what moves need to be made to fix this mess before Monday’s trade deadline, to just what in the hell has been going on for the past three weeks.
“When things don’t go our way, we have to find better ways to respond,” said captain John Tavares. “We just don’t respond well, getting down a goal, getting down two, even though the game wasn’t being dominated on either side. We did some decent things early, then I don’t know, we were either frustrated with the way we were playing, or feel like things aren’t going our way. That’s this time of year. Things are going to be tough. You have to overcome it.”
“It looks like the process that we want to go through is to just get embarrassed enough to the point where we just really look in the mirror and recognize what’s required for us to be able to compete at a high level at this stage of the season,” said an obviously irritated Keefe afterward, before later adding that it’s not just any one thing on any given night.
“If you had special teams on your Bingo card of things that are hurting our group then you’re happy today and got that filled. I think the common denominator is just the overall urgency and competitiveness of the group.”
Urgency and compete were words that were used often after the game, with Tavares being asked directly what “urgency” looks like to him.
“Just winning our battles, and some that you shouldn’t win,” said Tavares. “Finding a way to get outside your comfort zone. Finding another level that maybe you’re not sure you even have. It’s just part of what makes winning hard. I’ve only been so far, I’m trying to find it myself, and I think as a group that’s the way you challenge and push each other, and when thing get hard you have to embrace it.”
“Everyone’s got to take a look in the mirror and we have to be better because that’s unacceptable,” said defenseman Jake Muzzin. “We have to find the urgency, the passion, the love of the game, the love to compete for each other. All of that needs to come. I don’t know why it’s not there. Sometimes when we struggle we want the easy game, and it’s not going to be easy against good teams.”
Overall, it was about as dejected and bleak as things could seem for a team following a mid-February loss.
On one hand, it is somewhat understandable. This roster is not where anyone expected it to be in the standings at this point in the season. It has also been a tough stretch of results this month, with Tuesday’s loss being the second time in as many games this season that they have been completely dominated by Pittsburgh, a team that is supposed to be a measuring stick opponent. Where the Penguins have been — and currently are — is where the Maple Leafs are trying to reach. And when you get blown out by them twice (by a combined score of 12-3 in two games) that has to be a jolt to the system.
They also remain in a fight with the FPanthers to simply secure a playoff spot (which is far from a given at this point).
But even with these past 10 games the Maple Leafs are still 22-12-4 under Keefe.
That is a 105-point pace over 82 games and the sixth-best points percentage in the league during that stretch. Their awful start put them in a hole that was going to take a ton of digging to get out of with little margin for error the rest of the way. For the most part, they have pulled themselves out of it. But they still find themselves in a position — thanks entirely to that slow start — where every loss is going to be magnified, every flaw is going to be put under the microscope, and every game is going to be the most important game of the season.
There is not much room for the middle ground in sports analysis right now as everything tends to swing to the extremes. The Maple Leafs, because of the market they play in, the demand to end a generations long championship drought, and the talent they have on paper only adds to that for them. The reality, though, often times sits somewhere in the middle. The Maple Leafs have their flaws. They have their concerns. But they are still in a better spot than they were three months ago and probably not in as dire of a situation as it seems after an ugly loss.
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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.