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Young Leafs Learning the Ropes

by Adam Proteau /

Since Mike Babcock became their head coach last season, the Maple Leafs' troubleshooting philosophy has been about as straightforward as it gets: if there's something that isn't working, they deal with it directly and do their best to improve. And after returning from a road trip in which they played very well for long stretches of time - only to lose out on earning victories because of late-game defensive breakdowns - they know exactly where their collective attention needs to be.

"We're happy with the way that we've played going into the third, we've had a lot of leads, but it's obviously concerning we haven't been able to hold onto them," said Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly, referring to the fact Toronto has held an advantage heading into the third period in all five regular-season games thus far, yet only has one win to show for it. "Right now we've got to be focused on going out there in the third period and playing with the lead."

"I think you address it head-on - we blew a couple leads," added blueliner Connor Carrick. "Our message (at practice) today was there are certain areas we need to tighten up…and we just want to make those details work, and be successful at them with as little thought about them as possible. You just want to make it a habit. And the best way is to stare at it, talk about it head-on and go from there."

With an average of 3.60 goals-for this season, the Leafs have had little difficulty generating offence. But they also have a 3.60 goals-against average, and that's something that's a direct result of not playing well with a lead. Veteran winger Matt Martin is in his first year with the franchise, but he recognizes the in-game swings as a hallmark of a young team. However, he isn't about to accept that as an excuse.

"I've been a part of this before on (Long) Island (with the Islanders) three or four years ago, where unfortunately it felt like no lead was safe and we'd blow a lot of two-and-three-goal leads," Martin said. "It's kind of a cliche thing, but winning is an attitude and you have to believe you can do it, and not have that "here we go again" feeling as soon as a team gets one. It's keeping your emotions in check and not letting it be a roller-coaster ride out there, and just understanding there's going to be pushes and surges by other teams. If you give one up, you don't give the second one up. It's something we've got to learn and figure out, but obviously there were still a lot of positive things from that trip."

Babcock spoke to those positives after practice Monday. 

"I think our attitude is good, I think we work hard and we practice hard," Babcock said. "We haven't found enough ways to win, even though we've played well lots of times."

"We've been skating really well and dictating the pace of the play for a lot of the games," added winger James van Riemsdyk. "It's just a matter of that killer instinct and putting teams away."

The Leafs made two roster moves Monday, waiving winger Milan Michalek and claiming veteran centre Ben Smith - who had two goals and six points in 16 games with Toronto last season after being acquired via trade from San Jose - off waivers from the Colorado Avalanche. Smith's presence will help the Buds, in particular when it comes to special teams play.

"He gives us a right-handed faceoff guy who can penalty-kill too, so that was a concern for us," Babcock said of the 28-year-old Smith. "(Zach) Hyman and Leo (Komarov) are taking all the draws and they don't play centre, so we wanted to shore that up."

Toronto takes on Tampa Bay Tuesday at Air Canada Centre and follows up with another home game against Florida Thursday before heading to Montreal to face the Canadiens Saturday at Bell Centre. And Babcock says a showdown with three division rivals intent on a lengthy playoff push will be an important test for the Leafs.

"They're deep, deep teams, they're good teams, Montreal is the same, so it's a good challenge for us," Babcock said of the three opponents this week. "It's an opportunity for us to get going at home, and it's a real test. We understand that."

Most of all, the Leafs understand consistency is the name of the game at the NHL level. Even when you have a lead, you have to play in the manner that got you the lead, or you won't have it for long.

"We're learning and just trying to play consistently the same way no matter what the score is," van Riemsdyk said. "With us, it's not necessarily only because of inexperience, but for whatever reason our whole team needs to have more of that attacking mentality. We seem to get on our heels a little bit in those situations and start flipping pucks out of the zone and punting pucks too much, instead of just driving the play up the ice. 

"We've done a lot of great things to put ourselves in good positions every night, and if we continue to do that, I like our chances of figuring it out."

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