PITTSBURGH -- Sheldon Keefe said he is concerned.
With good reason.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are 4-4-1 in their past nine games heading into a home-and-home against the Pittsburgh Penguins, which begins at PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS, ATTSN-PT, NHL.TV) and concludes Thursday in Toronto.
Facing Penguins center Sidney Crosby and his teammates is never an easy task. Doing it when you are struggling to find any kind of identity and consistency in a playoff race makes the job that much tougher.
"This is the worst we've been in a really long time," the Maple Leafs coach said after Toronto's 5-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Center on Sunday. "It's certainly not a one-off, because we have not put our game together for quite some time."
The loss to Buffalo, their second defeat in the past three games, left the Maple Leafs (31-21-8) 13 points behind the second-place Tampa Bay Lightning in the Atlantic Division, and four ahead of the fourth-place Florida Panthers.
"We have to be better, we got to deal with the adversity, the things that we are going through, a little bit better," Keefe said. "We need to find more solutions to our depth, injuries and things that we've had."
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They will have to do so against the Penguins (36-15-6), who are 7-2-1 in their past 10 games and entered Monday one point behind the first-place Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division.
"They're very driven and play hard," Toronto captain John Tavares said. "It's obviously a crucial couple of games. It's going to tell us a lot about our team and where we're at."
Keefe refuses to use injuries to four regulars as an excuse for the team's struggles.
Forward Andreas Johnsson injured his knee against the Dallas Stars on Thursday, needs surgery and is expected to be out eight weeks. Forward Ilya Mikheyev had surgery on his wrist Dec. 28 and was projected to miss at least three months. DefensemanCody Ceci will be reevaluated next month after sustaining an ankle injury in a game against the New York Rangers on Feb. 5.
And defenseman Morgan Rielly, who broke his foot in a game on Jan. 12 against the Panthers, is expected to begin weight-bearing exercises this week. The state of his rehab could determine if the Maple Leafs acquire a defenseman before the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 24 at 3 p.m. ET.
One of the most head-scratching issues surrounding Toronto is its struggles against teams within its own division.
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The Maple Leafs are 9-8-2 against Atlantic Division opponents. Six of those victories have come against the Ottawa Senators and the Detroit Red Wings, the bottom two teams in the Eastern Conference. They are 2-2-0 against the Sabres.
As for the rest of their divisional opponents, the Maple Leafs have losing records against the Panthers (0-2-0), Montreal Canadiens (0-1-2), Lightning (0-1-0) and Boston Bruins (1-2-0). Of their 22 remaining games, they have three against Tampa Bay, two against Florida and one each against Boston and Montreal.
Keefe was asked what has made his team so inconsistent.
"It's tough to put a finger on it other than to say we have to be better," he said.
Especially against Crosby and the Penguins.
"They compete very hard and play with a lot of competitiveness," Keefe said. "We have responded very well any time we've taken it on the chin such as [Sunday].
"Hopefully we can reboot and recharge from what was a little bit of an embarrassment for us for what will be a significant challenge."