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Staying on the attack key for the Maple Leafs


A few insights could be gleaned from Mike Babcock’s post-practice rat-a-tat with the media Monday.

For one, the coach isn’t a fan of rationalizing Mitch Marner’s six-game pointless streak as the product of bad bounces, even if Marner had just spent time with reporters lamenting his recent run of rotten puck luck.

“I don’t believe in luck,” Babcock said. “I believe in preparation. When you do enough work, you get lucky. Just get to work.”

For another, Babcock doesn’t see William Nylander as a regular centreman, even though Nylander spent Monday’s practice skating between Marner and James van Riemsdyk in the illness-induced absence of Tyler Bozak. Still, given how career winger Patrick Marleau didn’t appear enamoured with a cameo at centre earlier this season, Babcock wasn’t ruling out Marner being in the middle come Wednesday’s home game against the Flames.

“Who knows?” Babcock said. “If we’ve got to use (Nylander at centre), we’ll maybe try him there.”

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For all the mini-crises continually at play, it was easy enough to forget that the Maple Leafs had emerged from the weekend three points out of the East lead; and that, heading into Monday’s slate of games, they’d scored more goals than any team in the league — 98 in 28 games. A year ago at the 28-game mark, they’d managed just 81 goals. Twelve months on, this is a better team still improving.

Still, Babcock spent another part of Monday reminding the cameras that the Leafs, no matter the local obsession with the practice-day line combos to come, haven’t been particularly good on home ice of late. They’ve lost two straight at the Air Canada Centre, falling behind early in losses to the Coyotes and Capitals. They carried that habit into Saturday’s 2-1 loss on the road in Vancouver.

“We’ve been off to slow starts, and that’s got to change,” said Marner, making an observation with which Babcock surely couldn’t quibble.

All of it was a reminder that every season has its issues. As goaltender Frederik Andersen said, “You’re always looking to improve something.”

Lately, the Leafs have struggled with lax beginnings. It wasn’t long ago that they couldn’t always muster an appropriate ending.

Last season, it’s easy enough to forget, the Maple Leafs were too often run ragged in a third-period fire drill. Though they led after two periods in 41 of their 82 games — second-most in the league behind the Capitals — they failed to covert those leads into the full two points 10 times. Their 76 per cent conversion rate ranked 25th in the league. And the Leafs’ frequent failure to secure all those easy points was symptomatic of a young team still learning its way.

“We’d have leads and teams would make pushes, and we’d stop making plays,” said second-year forward Connor Brown. “We’d flip the puck out, and we’d just play on our heels.”

Opponents quickly caught on to Toronto’s self-destructive pattern.

“The NHL’s a predatory league — the other team smells blood, they’ll let you beat yourself,” said defenceman Connor Carrick. “We say it ourselves. ‘Hey, we can score a couple on this team.’ ‘We can hunt this group.’ Maybe last year teams said stuff like that about us.”

It wasn’t just the other teams. Babcock more than occasionally tsk-tsked his squad’s lack of third-period drivetrain.

“Tight and tentative never got you anywhere in life,” Babcock said around this time last year, speaking of his team’s late-game play with a lead. “When you get in your car . . . you don’t put one foot on the brake and one foot on the gas. The long skinny one on the right, you just push it down. The car goes better.”

That was Babcock’s way of saying he wanted his team to keep attacking no matter the score. A year later, the message appears to have been well-absorbed. This year the Leafs have led after two periods in 10 of their 28 games. They’ve turned all 10 of those leads into victories — a 100 per cent conversion rate kept intact in wins in Calgary and Edmonton on last week’s Western Canadian road swing. Experience is the short answer for the late-game sea change.

“We figured out we’re no good when we sit back,” said veteran defenceman Morgan Rielly.

Said Carrick: “You can’t say you’ve been there and done that until you’ve been there and done that.”

Staying on the attack has been the difference. Heading into Monday’s slate of games, the Maple Leafs were leading the league in third-period goals with 41. Their third-period goal differential — an impressive plus-14 — ranked second to the L.A. Kings’ other-worldly plus-23. That’s impressive work in important moments.

“We’ve sharpened up defensively as well — knowing that the quicker we can get it out of our zone, the quicker we can dominate in their end and tire them out,” said Andersen. “It tends to be the team that’s hemmed in their zone that’s working the hardest.”

There are months of labour still to come, of course. Every team’s a perpetual work in progress. As for who’ll come to work as a centreman on Wednesday — let’s just say Babcock, as he put to bed the hockey-related questions for another day, finished strong.

“I’m trying to catch Willie, trying to catch Mitch, trying to catch all those young guys being good. And when you play centre, you’re often caught being bad,” Babcock said. “I don’t really need to catch ’em doing that. So that’s why (Nylander) isn’t there (regularly).”

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