As the Maple Leafs regrouped Wednesday after a loss at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto's players and coaches kept their focus on building on the strengths of their game - speed, skill and resolve - and using it when they face another tough opponent in the Florida Panthers Thursday at Air Canada Centre.
"We had the puck a lot and we played well yesterday and generated a lot of chances, but they were good in their opportunities, strong around the net and they scored on those chances." said Leafs goaltender Frederick Andersen, who was between the pipes during the Leafs' 7-3 loss to the Bolts at the ACC Tuesday. "Everyone's had tough times, so you just have to keep working at it and that's what we're doing."
Andersen hasn't played at his peak in his first handful of games as a Leaf, and after the Buds found themselves down 3-0 at the end of the first period Tuesday, Toronto head coach Mike Babcock had the opportunity to pull him and put in backup Jhonas Enroth. But Babcock said after practice Wednesday that he kept Andersen in the game to give him a chance to work through his struggles and round into the form Leafs management saw before they traded for him this summer.
"He knows he's my guy, and there was a decision for me to make after the first period last night - do I take him out, do I leave him in - I just felt it was important for him to battle, and I challenged him in front of his teammates as well to do that," Babcock said of Andersen. "It hasn't gone the way he wants. When you look at his numbers over the last three years and his numbers with us, they're not the same. I know things have a way of evening out, and when you're good, you don't just lose it. There's something affecting you. So we talked about that here today, and I expect him full-well to be back and rolling."
It was never going to be an easy game for Andersen, given how deep the Lightning are and how relentless their pursuit of the puck is. Toronto outshot the Bolts 43-24 on the night and Tampa needed an excellent performance out of netminder Ben Bishop to keep the Leafs from coming back from a 5-1 lead in the third period, but the Lightning do so many things so well, it would be nearly impossible for any franchise to dig out of that type of hole.
"Their speed and just the way they play, they're aggressive on the rush and in the offensive zone, they're always moving and switching, so it makes it difficult to defend," said veteran centre Ben Smith, who was playing Tampa Bay for the second time in five days after the Leafs claimed him off waivers from Colorado on Monday. "They're a great team, they've been at the top of the league now for the last few years, and you can see why."
That said, Babcock thinks the Bolts looked especially tough Tuesday because the Leafs weren't at their best, particularly after Tampa Bay scored twice in the first seven minutes of the first period.
"We didn't play good enough," Babcock said. "You'd really like to play them in a good game so you can see how good they can be. I was real impressed with their team…they're getting better all over, they've got good goaltending, they've got good 'D', and they've got good depth up front. So they're fun to play against and I thought it was a good challenge for our team. I loved a lot of the things we did, I loved the opportunity we had at their net, but obviously they scored too easy and the first two (goals-against for Toronto) to me, deflated us a little bit, and you can't have that. It doesn't matter what goes right and what goes wrong - you've just got to keep coming."
Toronto's next action comes Thursday when they host the Florida Panthers, who won the Atlantic Division last season and are virtually as deep, quick and skilled as the Lightning. And for Smith, who is now in his second tour of duty with the Leafs after playing 16 games with Toronto last year, it's the team's tenacity and willingness to keep pushing that will serve as a positive against an opponent whom no one doubts will have some push and urgency to their game.
"We're never going to give up, and that's the main thing," Smith said. "It's a group here, at least from my experience the last couple days and from my experience last spring, that we're a young and excited (group) that's looking to improve every day. It doesn't really matter what the score is - we want to play like it's 0-0, and find a way to keep getting better."
And that means forgetting about off days, no matter who you are on the roster.
"Anywhere you are, you're going to have tough nights," Andersen said. "It's about bouncing back and showing what you're made of."