From The Star
The Maple Leafs’ current losing streak was at three games when the question was put to Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri: Is this team more resilient than last year’s version, whose embarrassing finish to the season was one for the ages?
“When we play the way we’re supposed to, we can play with anybody in the league. That’s a big difference,” Rielly said. “We want to stay focused and keep driving. We’re not going to lose focus on our goal and . . . let anything creep in like we did last year.”
“This is a whole different squad,” Kadri said, “a whole different management group, a whole different coaching staff. Really nothing about this team is the same.”
Except, perhaps, a losing streak in January. This one has hit five games, after weekend losses to Chicago and Boston. Last year, they lost 11 in a row (0-10-1) through a January swoon that lasted into February. A team that thought it was a playoff contender instead kickstarted today’s rebuild.
If there are similarities, it’s trouble scoring.
Last year, through the first five games of the January skid, the Leafs only scored twice, once on the power play. This year, the Leafs have scored five times in five losses, once on the power play. Averaging a goal per game or less is no recipe for victory.
“You’ve got to score to win,” Leafs centre Tyler Bozak said. “Our power play (0-for-5 against Boston) has got to be better if we want to win games. We have to score goals on the power play.”
“It seems like it takes one or two games to bounce the right way, then you go out there with a bit more confidence,” Kadri said. “We just have to simplify and get pucks to the net and hopefully bang a few rebounds in.”
These Leafs are certainly trying harder. Some of that is a credit to coach Mike Babcock’s ability to inspire his team. But another aspect is that many of these players are older, and heading toward unrestricted free agency. They are playing for contracts.
“We’re happy with the group we have in this room,” Rielly said. “We have good leadership. We’ve got older guys who are leading the way. We’ve got guys who are having good years. We’re focused. The coach is keeping us focused. We know what we have to do . . .
“We’re going to keep working hard, keep trying to get better every day, we’re not going to let anything distract us.”
Of course, in the grand scheme of the team’s rebuild, another bottom-five finish isn’t the worst idea. It will translate into another high pick, maybe even No. 1 overall.
But for the players on the roster — especially the ones here the last few years — a bottom-five finish will be a disappointment.
“You have to draw on the positives,” captain Dion Phaneuf said. “When you’re in a rut, like we are right now, you’ve got to keep coming, you’ve got to keep pushing. You’ve got to find a way to work your way out of it.”
For Phaneuf, a positive was rebounding from early goals in the first and second period in Boston. For Bozak, a positive was seeing Shawn Matthias — one of those pending free agents — finally score.
“He’s had a lot of chances,” Bozak said. “He’s been a little snake-bitten, as he’ll say himself.”
The Leafs also recognize their faults. They took too many penalties against Chicago. They had small lapses in judgment against Boston.
“Nobody likes losing, there is nobody in there right now that is satisfied, we are all trying to get better,” said Matthias. “We owe it to our fans, we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to each other, we are playing hard for each other and we got to start putting some wins together. (Five losses) in a row now, we don’t want to be that type of team, we want to keep getting better. We can’t dip, we have to keep going up.”