Listen, if you’re paying attention to the Toronto Maple Leafs and have any sense at all, you know this team has been a mess.
It hasn’t been for lack of effort or even decent goaltending for long stretches either. Since Dec. 25, the Leafs have managed to win only three of 15 games and they’ve completely ignored the NHL’s hottest player: Auston Matthews.
But on Thursday night, Toronto finally showed glimpses of what made them so great last season. The Leafs fought back from two third-period deficits and went on to beat the Hurricanes, 3-2, in overtime.
“They got the win tonight, but even if we don’t win a game here in these next 10, 12 days, we’ve got to be able to turn it around, and we have,” said Matthews, who had a goal and two assists. “That’s what it’s about, just taking those days and building off them.”
He’s right, of course. The Leafs have to start turning it around if they want to stay out of the NHL’s basement. There’s no way around it.
In fact, Toronto (21-21-6) isn’t even in the basement of the East. But that’s not going to do much to silence the voices in and around the organization that are still unimpressed with what the young team accomplished last season.
Head coach Mike Babcock kept saying that his team “took care of” Carolina, but clearly he didn’t mean it that way. He just wanted them to show a little more resilience.
“You’ve got to use life in your game to motivate life in your game,” Babcock said. “We’ve got some young guys that look at life that way. We shouldn’t, but we do. You don’t have to. But you look at what’s going on and you think, you know what, you need this, you need that.
“When they show that, they’re pretty good. Tonight they didn’t show that.”
For whatever reason, the Leafs haven’t been able to muster a fourth line like they did last season. (Maybe it was because they had an elite line like Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander for two years.) Sure, they added John Tavares, and Tavares is a top-six forward in his own right, but this team just doesn’t have the killer instinct you need to compete at this level. They’re long in games, playing the benefit of having played a ton of games in last season. And they won’t go on any streaks, like the two they had during Christmas.
They’re all but finished — maybe they’ll still make the playoffs, but they’ll have to turn it around pretty soon if they want to have any chance. This team’s chances of returning to the Stanley Cup finals are over, and they may as well start cleaning up some bad habits.
“I think we can get there, but it’s going to take time,” said defenseman Travis Dermott. “Not many people believe it but we feel like we can get back to the finals. We don’t want to go through this again. It’s important for us to put ourselves in a spot where we can win some games and we’re starting to do that.
“We need to finish off some games and get back to .500. We didn’t do that last year. We have a long way to go but that’s what we’re working for.”
They’re going to have to carry on if they want to get to where they want to go, and it starts with winning more games. If the playoffs were a regular season game, the Leafs would be way up in the standings. But they’re not.
For a team with nowhere to go but up, the Leafs needed that win. Tonight was good news for sure.
After tonight, it’s time to wake up.