The Toronto Maple Leafs were looking for a better effort in the second of back-to-back games with Kasimir Kaskisuo making his first NHL start, but the Leafs fell behind early and did not show much effort in a 6-1 thrashing by the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena on Saturday.
The Penguins bombarded Kaskisuo with 19 first period shots and took a 2-0 lead on goals by Jake Guentzel and Evgeni Malkin, and put a stake through the heart of the Leafs with a pair of goals by Dominik Kahun and another by Jared McCann early in the middle frame.
After playing with energy in a 4-2 loss to Boston on Friday, Toronto was listless and lacked any motivation against the Pens, who were also playing in the second of back-to-back games and without team captain Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang.
“There was no reason for us to look the way we did tonight. (Pittsburgh) played last night, we played last night. They've got some injuries, we've got some injuries. A level playing field. The bottom line is they were better than us.” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said after the game.
The game capped off what is undoubtedly one of the worst weeks for Toronto in the Babcock era, with five consecutive losses and the last four coming in regulation. The Leafs now find themselves two points out of a Eastern Conference wildcard spot and with a record of 9-9-4 and they are 0-5-1 in the second of back-to-back games.
That record cannot be blamed on subpar goaltending from Michael Hutchinson or Kaskisuo (who made 32 saves in his NHL debut), but the team in front of them, who are now 30th in the NHL in goals-against (77).
“We need a regroup, because that (performance is) not good enough. We didn't play hard enough for long enough.” Babcock said. “In the end, as an athlete, you put on your sweater and you want to be proud of how hard you compete and how hard you play for one another. We didn't look after that. We have to take a look at each other and get this fixed, obviously. No one outside is going to fix it, we've got to fix it.”
The question utmost on the minds of Leafs fans after the game is will Babcock be the one to fix the problem or whether he is part of the problem. Toronto continues to struggle with slow starts that have them playing catch-up, special teams that are performing well below expectations, and borderline inept in their own zone.
The thought of Babcock being fired during the year was considered a longshot at best entering the season, but Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman indicated during the Saturday Headlines segment that all bets are off if the Leafs don’t pull out of their recent crash dive.
Friedman indicated that the Leafs did not want to make any drastic changes and hoped that the club would play better once all their injured players returned, but the return of Travis Dermott, Zach Hyman, and John Tavares was followed by the loss of Mitch Marner, Alex Kerfoot, and Trevor Moore.
Babcock is getting most of the blame for the Leafs failures thus far and the calls for his ouster are understandable, but GM Kyle Dubas and the players have their share of the blame in their current situation and removing the head coach from the equation would shift the focus on them. The expectation is that Sheldon Keefe will be the next Leafs coach and that is only a matter of when, but does Dubas want to put his guy in the position of trying to straighten out this mess early in the season or potentially make a change at the end of the season if it turns out to be a lost cause.
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