The Leafs went back to work early Friday at their west-Toronto practice facility and focused on their massively-crucial two-game homestand this weekend. That doesn't mean they've forgotten about the errors that have been made on their current two-game losing streak, but it does mean they're remaining positive they have the ability to punch a ticket to the post-season and don't have to depend on any other team to help them out.
"I thought Tampa was better than us last night," Leafs head coach Mike Babcock told Leafs TV in reference to his team's 4-1 loss to the Lightning Thursday. "I thought they were quicker, they won more races, more battles. And I thought we were tight. So we went through the process of going through what happened in last night's game, cleaning it up, preparing for (Saturday's) game and at the same time, understanding it's all about us."
"We're in a spot here where we control our own fate," added defenceman Morgan Rielly. "We have a chance to go out there tomorrow, win a game and we're in a great spot. We'll take that. We know what we have to do, we know how we have to play, and now it's just about us going out there and doing it."
The Leafs host Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins Saturday and follow that game up with a showdown against the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets Sunday, and one win in either of those games will secure them a post-season berth. Toronto still has the chance to finish as high as second in the Atlantic Division, but they'd need to beat both the Pens and Jackets to do so.
Regardless, Toronto's players and coaches want to qualify for the playoffs on their own terms. And to do that, they need to get back to the speedy, smart game that delivered them to where they currently sit in the standings.
"We've just got to play simple, keep it simple and not get too far ahead of ourselves," centre Auston Matthews said. "We've just got to play a full 60 minutes, play fast, do things the right way, and with the skill set on this team, we should be able to come out with the win. Obviously, Pittsburgh's one of the best teams in the league, but we feel like we can compete up there with them."
"What I like about this opportunity is we have to earn our way in," added Babcock. "No one's giving it to you. You've got to earn your way in, and that's what it's all about. It's having these opportunities to grow your game in moments that matter, and they've all had these opportunities at different levels, just not at this level. So let's look after business."
The Leafs' offence has produced only a single goal in each of their two most recent losses, but their defence has had an equally difficult time functioning at its best level. In Crosby and fellow star Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins have two of the NHL's very best point generators, but Toronto beat them 2-1 in overtime in their most recent showdown Dec. 17, and if the Buds can put forth a structured, patient effort Saturday, they have the chance to emerge with a victory again.
It will be a game that all of the city is focused on, and the players are well-aware of what fans expect from them and what they expect from themselves. And after the disappointment of last season, they're thrilled that the 2016-17 campaign has turned out the way it has: namely, with them being in position to get back into the playoffs and, as a young and evolving squad, experience Leafs Nation in a ratcheted-up emotional state.
"It feels very good to play these important games," Rielly said. "It's good for this group to learn what it's like to be in these pressure situations, and play these meaningful games down the stretch. So we're looking forward to the challenge. Two big games, two big opportunities, and it's up to us to be ready."
"We worked hard all year long to set ourselves up for these opportunities," added Babcock. "We're in a great spot in Game 81, so we're set up good. So let's play like we can.