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Maple Leafs need to find their stride in the stretch run

Frederik Andersen is a big man, solid and thick-limbed, and he speaks softly. It was after last Thursday’s loss in Philadelphia that the Danish goaltender exploded like a safe full of dynamite, asking who in the Toronto Maple Leafs room was truly committed, citing a lack of effort in some quarters, seeming to convey the frustration of some teammates. It was honest, and in a strangely static season, welcome.

By Monday morning the big Dane only had mild regrets, if that.

“It was pure emotion,” said Andersen, before the Leafs lost to the Colorado Avalanche 4-2. “That’s not an excuse, but I think it could have come out a little bit different. It happens.

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Matthews a goal short, a step late as Leafs lose to Avalanche

It’s a sentiment that needed to be heard. Since beating Edmonton 1-0 on Dec. 10, the Leafs are 6-8-5 for 17 of a possible 38 points. Over that span, Toronto had been narrowly outshot, arguably out-chanced, and there had been questions about coach Mike Babcock’s player deployment, to which he has occasionally gotten snappy. Sometimes the Leafs look like a team stuck between gears, unsure whether to hit the gas or the brake, and now defenceman Morgan Rielly is on the IR.

The Leafs played well against a fast Colorado team, despite a dragging fourth line, but Auston Matthews and Travis Dermott miscommunicated on the winning goal after Matthews tried to make something happen. Still, play like that, good things will happen.

But Toronto has won two games in regulation since Christmas, against Arizona and Ottawa, and the Ottawa one needed work. So when Andersen hit a boiling point, he couldn’t be only one in the room who felt that way. As he said, “I think a lot of guys on the bench, too, are pretty frustrated not being on the power play and seeing that kind of effort. I think we’ve got to look each other in the eyes here and determine where we want to go from here.”

“Some of the things made it sound like I was attacking someone, like the power-play stuff,” Andersen said Monday. “Which was not even close to that. It was more that, I’d love to see the guys (play with the same hunger) as guys on the PK. That kind of attitude. If you get a minute on the power play, you want to go out there and make the best of it, and (be) working hard to score. It shouldn’t be the other way.”

Not exactly a climb down, and he shouldn’t anyway. Pending unrestricted free agents like Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk are on the first power play unit; Leo Komarov, another pending UFA, is getting more even-strength ice time than Mitch Marner. It would be surprising if everyone was happy.

There is a strange clarity to this season in Toronto. Above them in the Atlantic Division, Tampa had the second-best record in hockey going into Monday night; Boston was third. And below the Leafs sat five of the eight worst teams in hockey.

So it’s simple. By the second week of April, the Leafs need to be good enough to beat Boston in the first round, or Tampa Bay in the first round. The Leafs haven’t looked like a team capable of that for well over a month, and Babcock and his players have 33 games left to fix whatever’s wrong, and find their stride.

“It’s like a blessing and a curse,” Andersen said of the division. “You really don’t want to sleepwalk into the playoffs. I think as the season goes on you want to get better, you want to be setting standards that go every night.”

And in the big picture, it’s what Andersen asked Thursday: Where do they want to go from here?

“I guess you talk about sophomore slumps and all that, and I’ve only been here a year, a year and a half now, but (I feel like the mindset after last season was) let’s just do that again, it’s easy,” said Andersen. “And we started up well and maybe we took it a little bit for granted. But that’s something we’re going to move past. We’re going to get on track.”

“If we work to be the best we can, honestly, every night, I think the talent, the sky’s the limit for us. We’re not quite there, but I think we want to be able to win, we want to bring a Cup back here, and I don’t think anyone should be afraid to say that, or have that as a goal.”

Nathan MacKinnon was in the other locker room Monday. The Cole Harbour, N.S., native had a good rookie season, and Colorado reached the playoffs despite getting outplayed, and then he and the team spent the next three years in hockey purgatory. Now MacKinnon is living up to his prodigious talent, and the Avalanche are respectable. “You kind of take it for granted,” MacKinnon said. “After the first year you kind of feel like it’s easy, and you think you’ll be in the playoffs every year no matter what. But it’s a tough league, and if you’re not getting better other teams are.”

He also said, of last year’s lost season in Colorado, “You try to get better and get better, but you know it’s not going to matter until next season.”

The Leafs have 33 games to figure out whether that statement, this season, applies to them.

TORONTO STAR