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Dave Feschuk: Cure for Leafs’ holiday hangover well within reach

Dave Feschuk: Cure for Leafs’ holiday hangover well within reach
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As the Maple Leafs and Lightning readied for their second meeting of the season Thursday, maybe it was absurd to pose the question: Which team finds itself in the more enviable position?

The knee-jerk answer is easy: Definitely not the Maple Leafs . In some eyes Toronto’s NHLers, by losing five of their past seven games, have exposed a defensive ineptitude that’ll be difficult to overcome without some trade-deadline rejigging. Until Frederik Andersen rediscovers the form interrupted by his month-long battle with a groin injury, they look like something less than a contender. And what’s to envy about that?

NHL scoring leader Nikita Kucherov and the first-place Tampa Bay Lightning host Nikita Zaitsev and the Maple Leafs on Thursday night.  (Dirk Shadd / TNS)

“We’ve been hit and miss since Christmastime,” acknowledged Mike Babcock, the Toronto head coach, speaking after practice on Wednesday.

And what’s not to like about the Lightning? Sitting 10 points clear of the closest challenger for top spot in the league standings heading into Wednesday’s games, Tampa is on pace for a remarkable 129-point season — what would be the third-highest total in NHL history. Only the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens and 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, magical teams loaded with myriad hall of famers, have done better. This season, Tampa is the only team scoring an average of four goals a game. More than half the league is averaging less than three.

In other words, they’re not just a good team. They’re making a run at becoming the best regular-season team in the salary-cap era. Which is impressive.

But is it enviable? Is such a so-far seamless ride through the regular season something you’d actually wish on your favourite franchise?

Again, in some ways it seems absurd to pose the question. Who wouldn’t want their favourite team to be the NHL’s best team? Then again, this is a league where recent history hasn’t been kind to clubs that top the table during the 82-game grind. Only one of the past 10 winners of the Presidents’ Trophy, emblematic of NHL regular-season superiority, has followed it up by hoisting the Cup.

You can make the case there’s a goldilocks regular-season temperature for a team that aspires to win the ring — not too hot, not too cold. Heck, the Leafs might be OK if they cooled down a touch more. A little more than two weeks ago they were on pace for a 116-point season. They’re currently on pace for 105 points. Six of the past 10 Stanley Cup winners went into the playoffs with fewer.

Which is not to say Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, who was cited as one of the key playoff underachievers when the 2005-06 Red Wings bit the dust, has engineered this whole post-Christmastime swoon to buy some insurance against mid-season complacency. But if you’re Babcock — if you’re any coach fighting for the daily attention of a team during the October-to-April slog — such a dip is easily spun as a welcome development. When it comes to focusing a group, a crowd’s boos will always trump a coach’s bark. So if the Maple Leafs are the elite team they’ve more than hinted at being, Monday’s show of home-ice fan displeasure, which was aimed at Jake Gardiner but ultimately occasioned by a collective stinker, could prove important.

Gardiner chalked it up to fans hitting an understandable “boiling point.” The team hopes it’s a cold-water wakeup.

“We just have to hope you learn from that. You hope that that’s the lowest it’ll get all season,” said forward Zach Hyman.

Said John Tavares, the veteran centreman: “A lot of athletes look at challenges like this as a puzzle — find a way to figure your way through ’em. It’s a great opportunity for growth.”

Speaking of puzzles, Babcock used Wednesday’s practice to fiddle with the forward lines, reuniting last season’s regular trio of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Hyman, among other tweaks. Babcock said that while he wasn’t yet wedded to the change, he’s in the market for a prompt transformation.

“We didn’t feel our work ethic was up to a level that we could be proud of last game, as a group,” said the coach. “And what makes that happen? And what makes the group go? You don’t always know. But if it’s just changing some lines around, then we’ll do that.”

Maybe it’s as simple as this: The better teams in the league, said Babcock, have shifted into a higher gear in the wake of the holiday season.

“We haven’t done that,” Babcock said. “So therefore we’ve been left behind.”

Left behind, lately. But the good news, for Babcock and his team, is that nobody’s ultimately judged on seven-game stretches in January.

“We’re barely halfway through,” said Andersen of the Leafs, who’ll play game 46 of 82 Thursday at Amalie Arena. “There’s going to be ups and downs … You learn about yourself in tough times like this.”

As for which team is in the more enviable position: Consider that Toronto hasn’t won a playoff series in 15 years. Advancement to the second round would count as a moment of honking-in-the-streets triumph in the centre of the hockey universe. The Lightning, multiple years into a championship window and facing more impending salary-cap duress than Toronto, are in Cup-or-bust mode. It’s a burden that’s proven hard to bear — especially when your regular season is going as well as theirs.
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