It can be an uncomfortable experience to take a hard look at games you aren’t proud of. But it’s become a necessary evil for the Leafs, as the process has seen them play some of their best hockey over the course of the last four games.
“We had those couple of games where we didn’t play well,” Cody Franson recalled of Leafs losses to Nashville and Buffalo last month. “We went, we looked at some tape, we exposed the areas we need to expose. Sometimes it’s not pretty to watch those games, there’s a lot of areas where you can improve upon.”
The lessons learned are yielding better results, with the Leafs matching a season high four-game point streak (3-0-1). The wins have come with a high amount of goals: The ability was always there, it just took a little bit of perspective to see what the issues are.
“Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom,” said Leafs assistant coach Steve Spott. “Nobody can deny that game in Buffalo and our home game in Nashville was probably as low as we can get, at least let’s hope, anyway. What it does is give us a full reset as a coaching staff. It allows us to now go into that dressing room and demand how we have to play. They were embarrassed.”
The wins the Leafs have gathered since then have been rather convincing. Toronto sits third in the NHL with a 3.30 goals per game average. Of their 12 wins this season, they have averaged a massive 4.33 goals per game. In fact, of their 12 wins, 10 of them have come with scoring at least four goals.
Franson has been a big benefactor of the Leafs’ success in scoring, leading defecemen on the team with 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in 21 games.
But as the season rolls on, the games will only get closer. Toronto has only won two of seven games that were decided by one goal. The next level for Franson and the Leafs is to find ways to grit out games that aren’t seemingly decided early on.
“You look at the playoff games and the teams that are successful in the playoffs. In those games, a tonne of them go into overtime or they’re one goal differentials, you rarely get blowouts in playoffs,” Franson said. “In order to become a playoff team you have to be comfortable in those situations let alone succeed in the playoffs.”
With the results generated over the past four games, the coaching staff is now able to take the learning process to the next level.
“Now you’re talking about the details of your game not just the full system but the details within your system,” Spott said. “It’s nice to get that point as a coaching staff. You’re not just talking about the forecheck, your d-zone coverage, you’re talking about the details within those systems.”
Players have been bought in, including David Clarkson, who spent a lot of time working with coach Spott to find his groove.
“It’s just getting back to way I’ve been playing,” said Clarkson whose seven goals have already eclipsed last year’s entire season total at five. “When you have team success, individuals have success too.”
Leo Komarov sat out of Monday’s practice after taking an elbow to the head from Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin on Saturday.
“He thought he felt pretty good this morning, we kept him out for precautionary reasons and will know tomorrow on what’s going to happen,” said Spott. “They (the medical staff) felt it was best to keep him off the ice today.”
Joffrey Lupul skated in Komarov’s regular spot with Nazem Kadri and Mike Santorelli, while Daniel Winnik filled Lupul’s spot with Peter Holland and David Clarkson.
Important note: Winnik missed two games earlier this season after going through similar protocols.
Phil Kessel left practice after 30 minutes with lower-body soreness. Kessel has not missed a game since he played his first game as a Leaf on Nov. 3, 2009.