TORONTO - Under interim coach Peter Horachek, the Toronto Maple Leafs are a conundrum. The defensive inconsistency that cost Randy Carlyle his job is mostly gone, but at the same time the goals have disappeared.
"When you think about it, if you're playing better defensively and you're giving up less chances, you're thinking you're going to be in a better position," Horachek said.
You'd think that, but the Leafs have scored just seven goals during an embarrassing 0-7-1 slide, including just five at even strength. It has become a baffling stretch of a season that's beginning to look all too much like — to quote former Leafs GM Brian Burke — an 18-wheeler going off a cliff.
"If you're getting the same number of chances as we were when we were not playing as well defensively, you would think that the message should be: 'Just finish your chances,'" Horachek said after Thursday's 3-1 loss to the Coyotes. "Because we're not getting less chances, we're getting the same number of chances."
Injuries have played a role, but now that Joffrey Lupul is back and only captain Dion Phaneuf is missing, it's no longer a valid excuse.
Lupul returned Thursday night against Arizona after missing 11 games with a lower-body injury. Forced to watch a lot of bad hockey, the winger saw improvement at one end of the ice but not much to show for it at the other.
"Our team game looks better, but individually we're struggling to make the big play at the critical time," Lupul said. "We're doing some things right, but obviously you've got to score goals."
Phil Kessel scored his 20th of the season against Arizona, but it was also his first at even strength in 19 games dating to Dec. 16.
"Hopefully I can get going," Kessel said. "It's frustrating right now."
Kessel said he wasn't sure if his goal might jump-start the offence going into Saturday's game at the Philadelphia Flyers, the first of three straight on the road. As a team, he's not quite sure what the Leafs have to do to score.
"You've got to bury it, right?" Kessel said. "I think we've got to get more bodies to the net and create more secondary chances. Get a break, once in a while. Get a good bounce. We don't seem to be getting them."
Bad bounces are bothering the bewildered Leafs, but it's more than that. They've struggled to score since Horachek arrived preaching a more defensively responsible style.
Changing systems on the fly is guaranteed to cause some stumbling, but 14 goals in 10 games and only one victory to show for isn't what management wanted to see after firing Carlyle.
Perhaps this should have been expected. When the Capitals visited for Horachek's debut, his friend and mentor Barry Trotz offered some thoughts on what happens early in a transition like this, similar to the one he made in Washington months ago.
"There's growing pains because you're going to play really well, and even if you're playing well defensively you might not get the wins," Trotz said. "You always get tested how far you're going to come off the rail, if you will, to have balance in your game."
Balance has been difficult for the Leafs to find. Progress is being measured in tiny increments.
In Wednesday's shootout loss at the New Jersey Devils, Horachek was glad his team didn't give up a first-period goal — which had been a trend — and didn't have to play catch-up. He was also satisfied with the quality of scoring chances.
"We're getting chances from the 'A' areas," Horachek said. "We have to spend more time in those areas, whatever you want to call it, the lion's den, the house, and get more people in those areas.
"Sometimes when the goals aren't going in, you have to get more of a greasy goal, you're going to have to get more of an ugly goal. Pucks are going (to have) to have more traffic and people slapping in a rebound or going off a skate and you're going to have to find ways to get it in."
These Leafs are built more to score on the rush than from the side of the net. With goals hard to come by from anywhere, Lupul said that "after a while I'm sure guys lose their confidence."
Horachek is trying to keep confidence up.
"You have to take solace in that and say, 'OK, it's moving in the right direction,'" he said. "We're going to stay course, believe in what we're doing and hopefully things will be more favourable."
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