The Maple Leafs have been on a solid streak of late - one that's seen them win nine of their past 12 games - but in a profession where many people believe you're only as good as your most recent performance, Toronto's 5-3 loss to the New York Rangers Thursday left a bad taste in the mouths of players and head coach Mike Babcock.
"We were terrible last night," Babcock said Friday after his team practiced and prepared to take on the Ottawa Senators Saturday. "I haven't been here that long, but in the time I've been here, I don't know how often we came to the rink where we thought like we should win…we didn't compete hard last night, and we weren't prepared. So that's my job. I was disappointed when I left the rink. (We) weren't ready to go, no detail…so now that's one, it's got to be done. And we're playing a good Ottawa team tomorrow, and they're going to be competitive."
The Leafs are one of the NHL's faster teams, but the Rangers are neck-and-neck with them in that department, and in Thursday's loss, Toronto was hemmed into their own zone often, and took too many chances that resulted in odd-man rushes for the Blueshirts, whose transition game looked about as good as any team's last night. But centre Tyler Bozak said just about every squad in the league is able to beat another team if that team isn't paying attention to detail, winning puck battles and playing smart hockey - three things the Buds lacked in the defeat.
"Every team is fast, every team moves the puck quick, tries to get behind the other team's defence and create offense that way," said Bozak, who scored his 11th goal of the season in the loss. "Obviously, the Rangers are one of the fastest teams in the league with guys like Grabner and Kreider and that, but I think the majority of teams are really quick now."
With the defeat behind them, the Leafs turn their attention to the Senators, who sit two points ahead of Toronto in the Atlantic Division standings. The Sens have won two straight games and four of their past five, but that one loss came to the Leafs Jan. 14 in Ottawa by a score of 4-2, and there's no doubt they'll be looking for revenge at Air Canada Centre Saturday.
"We beat them last time we played them in a back-to-back situation," Babcock said. "It was a good win for us, but we just played patient, we scored and we played inside. We're going to have to be better here tomorrow."
The Senators made news Thursday when they announced winger and former Maple Leaf Clarke MacArthur would miss the remainder of the 2016-17 season due to a head injury that limited him to just four games last year. MacArthur was beloved by his teammates during his two-and-a-half-year stint in Toronto, and his former teammates were upset to hear the 31-year-old wouldn't return to the ice until next year at the soonest.
"That's a really sad thing for me to hear," Bozak said of MacArthur, who has appeared in 548 regular-season games over the course of his decade-long career. "He's a really good friend of mine. I still keep in touch with him a lot. I know he was feeling a lot better and was trying to get back out there. I'm pretty devastated for him. I know all he wants to do is play, and he's a great player. I know he's got a lot of hockey left in him, and he can make a huge impact out there. It's pretty tough to see."
Although Bozak was saddened to hear MacArthur wouldn't be on the ice Saturday night, he was looking forward to facing former teammate and former Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf.
"It's fun," Bozak said of squaring off against Phaneuf. "He's obviously a guy you've got to be aware of, don't want to have your head down too much. Even though we're friends, I think he'd still try and take my head off if he had the opportunity, and laugh about it after. But he's doing really well there, I know he enjoys it, and their team is doing well, so we've got to be ready. It's going to be a tough test for us tomorrow."
And that test needs to have better results for Babcock and the Leafs players to head home feeling better about themselves than they did Thursday night.
"We've got to be way better than last night," Babcock said. "Maybe my expectations are way different for the group, but I thought that was the least competitive night we've had this year. So, to me, wasn't good enough. But the players cleared out of the (dressing) room pretty quickly last night. They know, too. They're big boys, too. They know what's going on. We all came to the rink expecting to win, (but) we didn't prepare right, we didn't execute right, we didn't compete hard enough, we didn't get what we wanted. Let's get back on track."