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Babcock, Leafs confident ahead of Friday's game vs. Flyers

by Adam Proteau Proteautype /

The Leafs are focused on getting off to a strong start and bouncing back from a pair of losses when they hit the ice Friday night against the Flyers, reports Adam Proteau from Thursday's practice.

After two tough starts that saw the Leafs forced to fight back from early deficits, it's the second and third periods from Wednesday's battle against the Blackhawks that the Buds are focused on building off of when they host Philadelphia on Friday night.

Early deficits are almost certainly the reason the Leafs are on a two-game losing streak. In Wednesday's showdown with the Blackhawks, Toronto allowed the first five goals of the game - including four goals in the first period - and although the Leafs chipped away at Chicago's advantage until they trailed by only a single goal, they ran out of time in front of the Scotiabank Arena crowd and lost 5-4 to the visitors.

Their effort Wednesday didn't get Toronto any points in the standings, but after Monday's game against Tampa Bay (in which the Leafs fell 6-2 to the Lightning) their demonstration of resilience Wednesday provided a sign of hope that the Leafs are heading into their next game - Friday, when they host the Philadelphia Flyers at Scotiabank Arena - with a renewed sense of drive and confidence.

Certainly, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock wasn't about to make any irrational moves in reaction to his team's two-game losing skid. Rather, he was pleased to see the final two periods of the Hawks game - specifically, Toronto's employment of its speed and skill - in the latter half of the Leafs' performance Wednesday. That's what won Toronto six of eight games prior to its current losing streak, and what the Leafs will need to see as they play the final 12 games of the 2018-19 regular season.

"We had it going real good, and then suddenly we've come off it for two games," Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said Thursday after the team's practice. "We didn't like four of our last six periods at all, and so we thought we got our work ethic and our speed back (Wednesday) in the second (period), and we were able to capitalize and feel better about ourselves in the third. So we tried to focus on our details, but get back skating, and skating like we can."

All four goaltenders in the lineup Wednesday wound up playing significant time - a rarity in the modern-day NHL - and backup Garret Sparks played well in relief of No. 1 Frederik Andersen for the second game in a row. But despite his willingness to make changes and move players around on a period-to-period basis, Babcock didn't feel any need to make emotional speeches to the Leafs' dressing room in order to motivate them to try and secure second place and home ice advantage in the playoffs.

"I don't think, when you're looking at our group, that we need a lot of (motivational speeches)," Babcock said. "We understand what's at stake for us, we understand our opportunity is here and now. Next year in sport never comes. We play in a real good division with real good teams. You've got to be on top of your game."

The Leafs have been bitten by the injury bug of late, knocking defencemen Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott, as well as wingers Kasperi Kapanen and Zach Hyman out of the lineup. But Toronto has had it relatively easy on the injury front in recent years, and the Leafs' much-heralded organizational depth now has a chance to prove itself in a high-pressure situation.

"We can't think about injuries, we've had years in the past where we were very fortunate with them," defenceman Morgan Rielly said. "You just look at who's available, go out there and motivate each other…We keep on saying that playoffs are around the corner and we have to get in playoff mode, but we have to (really) do it. There's no reason not to be urgent, prepared and hungry at this time of year."

The Leafs lineup will go head-to-head Friday against the Flyers, a team that's won two in a row and that is five points behind Columbus (with a game in hand for Philly) for the final wild card berth in the Eastern Conference. That will make them a formidable opponent to be sure, but as Babcock noted, each game the Leafs have the rest of this season will feature an opponent that has motivations to beat Toronto. 

And for the Leafs, the name of the game is consistency - consistent hunger to win, consistent stronger starts to games, and a consistent style of low-risk, opportunistic hockey that almost always succeeds in the post-season.

"It doesn't matter where we are (in the standings) - we should be hungry every night to win games," winger Mitch Marner said Thursday. "There's nights where we look like we're ready for (playoff-type intensity) and there's some nights that (we) look like we're not ready for it at all…It's a different beast in the playoffs, and we've got to make sure we're ready for that."

"Every night in the National Hockey League, you play a good team that's real hungry and you've got to play well," Babcock said. (W)e have 12 games left to prepare (for the post-season), and we've got to keep getting better."

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