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Maple Leafs concerned by slow starts, cite defensive breakdowns

Say communication, attention to detail key after trailing 4-0 early in consecutive losses

by Mike Zeisberger @zeisberger / NHL.com Staff Writer

TORONTO -- Morning skates on game days are usually reserved for shedding rust, working the kinks out of creaky bones and practicing shots.

That wasn't the case for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday.

With the Maple Leafs coming off an embarrassing 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday, coach Mike Babcock used the time to have the players focus on their defensive zone coverages. Or, of late, a lack thereof.

Did that attention to detail translate to the game against the Chicago Blackhawks eight hours later?

"Sure didn't look like it in the first period," Babcock said, shrugging his shoulders after the Maple Leafs' 5-4 loss at Scotiabank Arena. "The reality is, you can stand in the right spots but you have to compete at a high enough level. I just didn't think we started good enough."

Again.

For the second consecutive game the Maple Leafs looked as if they were sleepwalking once the opening puck was dropped.

Against Tampa they found themselves behind 4-0 4:50 into the second period. They trailed the Blackhawks 4-0 after 18:46. Of all the disturbing trends plaguing this team right now, slow starts top the list.

Video: CHI@TOR: Keith's shot squeaks through Andersen

Goalie Frederik Andersen is the first to admit he's played a role in the current malaise after being pulled for the second consecutive game. He's allowed eight goals in the past 33 shots, lowering his save percentage for the season from .924 to .920.

But even Andersen knows the Maple Leafs issues run far deeper than his struggles. He, like his teammates, was at a loss to explain why there were so many defensive breakdowns after they'd specifically worked on solving them earlier in the day.

"By saying that we have to play for each other, I mean communicating with each other," Andersen said. "We have to do a better job of that. It falls on everyone. It's something we have to look at."

Toronto was missing four regulars -- forwards Kasperi Kapanen (concussion), Zach Hyman (illness) and defensemen Travis Dermott (shoulder) and Jake Gardiner (back) -- but forward Auston Matthews refuses to use that as an excuse.

"We weren't ready to play again," Matthews said. "We were flat-footed … Guys were pretty [peeved off] when we came into the room and motivated to get back out there. We just came up short tonight but that first period obviously was unacceptable."

Keep this in mind: It was Matthews who said the team quit in the third period against the Lightning. Their effort wasn't much better in the first period against the Blackhawks.

"We hold each other accountable in this room," Matthews said. "Like I said, it's unacceptable. We can't be doing that at this point in the season with these important points on the line. We're battling for home ice and we got to step it up."

Video: CHI@TOR: Saad buries backhander to extend lead

The loss left Toronto (42-23-5) in third place in the Atlantic Division with 89 points, four points behind the second-place Boston Bruins (42-19-9). With each team having played 70 games, the Bruins hold the upper hand for home ice in what appears to be a second consecutive meeting between Boston and Toronto in the Eastern Conference First Round.

The Bruins understand that is likely. They've been scouting Toronto's games. Given the Maple Leafs recent penchant for allowing opponents quality scoring chances from the slot, the likes of Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand must like what they see.

For their part, the Maple Leafs insist their recent woes are just speed bumps on the road to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, not a long-term trend.

"I think it's just a blip," defenseman Morgan Rielly said. "That's the goal anyway. Obviously we don't want it to last."

If it does, Toronto might be looking at yet another short spring, having been eliminated by the Bruins in seven games last season.

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