Mired in a three-game losing streak – and one night away from facing the red-hot, defending Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks – the Maple Leafs decided to use a practice day Thursday to conserve their energy and work out off the ice. And for head coach Mike Babcock, the dry-land workout and team meeting was a chance for Toronto’s players to focus on what went wrong in a flat effort and 3-1 loss to Columbus Wednesday.
“I think it’s real important to live in the present and to be accountable with one another,” Babcock said. “We weren’t ready to go last night. I say it all the time: lack of competition and lack of preparation drive me crazy. We weren’t terrible by any means…but in saying that, we could’ve dictated play, I thought, at the start of last night, and we weren’t good enough. So we’re responsible for that.”
In theory, at least, Babcock’s Leafs will have an advantage over the Hawks, who take on the Canadiens Thursday in Montreal. But he noted Toronto also was facing a Blue Jackets team that was playing the second of back-to-back games Wednesday, and that didn’t do them much good once that tilt began. So, when taking on a star-studded squad that features captain Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook among others, Babcock will be looking for a strong start from his charges. With no on-ice activities Thursday, the Leafs will have no excuses in that regard.
“We want to have as much energy as we can for the back-to-back we’ve got coming, and we’ve got to fix our preparation,” Babcock said. “To me, last night, we can’t be chasing the game. As much as we can say we out-chanced (the Blue Jackets), and out-shot them and all that, catch-up hockey is losing hockey. You’ve got to start on time.”
The Blackhawks are the NHL’s hottest team at the moment – they’ve won eight straight games and sit in second place in the Western Conference, just two points behind the Dallas Stars – and can hurt you in any number of ways. Buds goalie James Reimer will get the start against them at Air Canada Centre, and it will take a complete effort from Toronto to beat a franchise that currently is the gold standard in the league.
“They’re fun to watch,” Babcock said of the Blackhawks. “When you look at their core group there, Jonathan (Toews) is as good a captain as you can have and does it right and sets the tone for their team. And Kane is obviously a gifted, gifted player, and Keith and Seabrook on the back. (GM) Stan (Bowman has) done a nice job there – they’ve moved people in and out, and they’ve been able to keep some of their real good players. They’ve done a good job with their core group and they’ve maintained it, and they’ve done a lot of winning. Any way you look at it, they’ve done a real nice job.”
The game against the Hawks will be the first of a back-to-back series that concludes Saturday night in Boston, when Jonathan Bernier will be in Toronto’s net to battle the Bruins. But first thing’s first for Babcock & Co., who need to return to the consistently structured, resilient play that made them a dangerous team for November, December and the first part of January.
If they can’t, there will be more days where they feel like they did Thursday.
“I’m a big believer, when you do things the way you’re supposed to and you don’t win, you can still walk out of the rink with your head held high,” Babcock said. “When you don’t do that, though, you feel like you do today. So let’s fix it.”