It is among the oldest of hockey tropes, but it’s not too early for a measuring stick game for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But it’s not the Stanley Cup pedigree that the St. Louis Blues were nearly literally exuding in the visitor’s dressing room in Toronto that has the Maple Leafs eager to test themselves. More so, it’s that they were pretty soundly defeated in both meetings with St. Louis last season, picking up just a single point while being outscored in those games 7-3.
“We’re excited to play them,” head coach Mike Babcock said Monday morning. “They beat us twice last year, and both times they handled us. We weren’t handled by lots of teams last year — they handled us. They got a maturity level in their group. Good veteran leadership. They take care of the puck. They play right. They’re above you. You turn it over, they attack. The compete inside. They compete heavy on the forecheck.
“Real good opportunity for us. Real good challenge for us. We need a bounce-back game.”
The more convincing of St. Louis’s two victories over the Leafs one year ago was actually one of the few games the eventual champions won in the first half of the season. They bottled up the attack of a fresh Leafs team, holding them well below their average shot output before skating to a 3-0 lead and really putting the clamps down in the third period.
Given St. Louis’s struggles in the early part of the season, it was one of the more forgettable nights for the Leafs to start the year. But despite the loss maybe aging well in retrospect, Babcock is adamant that the Blues’ championship makeup was present even then.
“They were that good. Let’s not kid ourselves,” Babcock said. “It wasn’t pixie dust. It wasn’t a miracle. They were that good.”
Given that the Maple Leafs in some ways doubled down on their skill-first roster construction, trading Nazem Kadri — one of the few players with a mean streak — for an uber-skilled puck-moving defenceman in Tyson Barrie, the organization won’t soon win a championship with the same formula that St. Louis did — through physicality, organized pressure and a relentless forecheck.
However, in the mind of their head coach, the same winning principles apply for the Leafs when aiming to build a championship-calibre program with speed, skill and creativity being their identity.
“When you play right you have a chance,” Babcock said. “Play right. Take care of the puck. Defend right. Playing heavy in the offensive zone. You got a chance to win.”
Accomplishing none of the above as fatigue set in the third period in the second half of a back-to-back last Saturday with the Montreal Canadiens in town, the Maple Leafs suffered the consequences of failing to do right by the game, taking their first loss of the season in a shootout.
Said Babcock: “I thought the other team was more relentless than us.”
Re-establishing those standards begins again Monday versus the Blues, who Babcock will undoubtedly point to down the hall as the primary reason it’s so important to uphold them.
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