It took just two games for the 2017-18 Toronto Maple Leafs to momentarily fall under the dizzying spell of their own talent.
Bashing Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers over the head with five goals in the first 17 minutes in Saturday’s home opener (and the last while it be named Air Canada Centre), the Maple Leafs appeared to let off the gas like they had on numerous occasions during their resurgence last season, and wouldn’t re-locate the pedal until forced to start over at 5-5.
Fortunately for the home team, they were able to exit the fog out of the intermission – which meant getting back to being Alex Ovechkin-hot – and answered their second-period letdown with a three-goal third aided by the first failed offside challenge under the new rules committed by Rangers coach Alain Vigneault.
Scoring on the ensuing power play, the Maple Leafs took it 8-5 and avoided having to chew on a loss while examining why it was they momentarily lost their way, again, and having to answer questions about why this club struggles to hold a lead, again.
Coming into the season, the talk in Toronto about the Leafs competing for a Stanley Cup may have been a bit hopeful, but not wildly premature. And even those reluctant to elevate the Leafs into the NHL’s top tier wouldn’t totally scoff at the idea of the team being one piece away from being a formidable challenger.
But that piece – believed to be the No. 1 defender that knocks the remaining blue-liners down a rung and into the proper placeholder – isn’t that snap-of-the-fingers fix. On Saturday, he wouldn’t have kept Mitch Marner’s stick off Chris Kreider’s torso, or reeled in Jake Gardiner, or been there to intercept the normally offensively-inept Marc Staal as he crept off the point and buried a redirection from the slot. (OK – maybe the third one.)
One player can’t absolve this team of the significant dips in overall performance that meant barely scraping into the postseason last year. There are still issues at work and consistencies these Leafs must achieve, from routinely making the smart plays to avoiding sinking into an ill-timed malaise.
And for Mike Babcock, it doesn’t involve blowing a vocal cord on the bench or in the dressing room or in the boardroom with a demand for a No. 1 defenseman. For now, it’s to simply continue sending his group over the boards.
“I think we got a good process going. I like our group, I like the people,” he said. “I like their commitment to doing good things. Just because it doesn’t go the way you want it sometimes doesn’t mean they’re not trying to do good things.”
He added when asked if a new season means aiming to discover new combinations or tactics to lean on in situations like the Maple Leafs found themselves in the second period versus New York:
“We got lots of guys and we trust ’em all. That’s why we play ’em.”
This is the sort of thinking that frustrates some fans (especially those in favour of a more skilled fourth line.) Babcock didn’t really waver as his team fell into a brief tailspin, trusting that they would work through the fog. This meant continuing to skate the Marner-Tyler Bozak-James van Riemdsyk line that allowed three even-strength goals and showed signs of struggle before the puck even found the back of Frederik Andersen’s net.
His thinking there: there’s value in working through it.
In Babcock’s mind, just because the Leafs are a threat to win the Atlantic Division, and went out and signed a high-priced veteran winger in Patrick Marleau in the offseason, doesn’t mean it’s license to micromanage every night like it’s Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. His time will come.
Instead, what’s being prioritized early on in a season that is still, at its core, about development, is seeing how his combinations respond to the adversity thrown in their direction.
Able to answer the issues with offense in the first two games, the result from rolling out lines and pairings in a consistent manner in lieu of exhaustive optimization: 15 goals counted on four different goaltenders, and four points in the standings. (And it was the Bozak group that returned to provide the go-ahead marker after the break.)
This team has freedom, for now. They need it because there’s room to grow, and they may keep it because they’re just that talented.
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