PITTSBURGH – This is where the Toronto Maple Leafs hit rock bottom.
Here at PPG Paints Arena in November, a 1-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins set the wheels in motion for Mike Babcock's shot. And they didn't fare much better on Tuesday's return visit to the house Sidney Crosby built.
The Leafs were involved in a tight playoff race and suffered a daunting defeat in Buffalo. They allowed Crosby to run their show during a 5-2 win in Pittsburgh.
The lack of push in an important game couldn't help ringing some alarm bells. The Leafs didn't even manage a dangerous scoring chance in the first half and fell 5-0 before finally breaking through against penguin goalkeeper Tristan Jarry.
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Crosby was a force of nature.
He tossed the ice out with teammate Evgeni Malkin as a surprise, and prepared Bryan Rust and Jason Zucker for Powerplay goals before scoring a goal himself. Crosby added a third template to Teddy Blueger's goal by pulling Frederik Andersen out of position before taking the puck to Rust.
The Leafs came here to look for an answer after surrendering three goals to the Sabers in Sunday's 2-5 loss. They still hold the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division, but have only a two-point advantage over the Florida Panthers when two more games are played.
Before the return leg against Pittsburgh on Thursday, you will face some difficult questions as to whether you will not be able to achieve a constant level of performance.
“As a team, as a group, from the leadership [we need to be] we make sure that we bring our A-game every night, no matter what the situation is, who we are playing, what kind of environment we are in Overall rating, ”said Matthews. "Just make sure we come down every night and compete against all 20 or 22 boys."
They couldn't look in the mirror and say so about Tuesday's efforts. Sure, they did things with Matthews' 43. Goal in the league and another one made Kyle Clifford a bit more respectable, but they also managed to get one shot on goal during a 79-second 5v3 power game in which head coach Sheldon Keefe decided to roll five forward ,
There was a lack of crispness and a sense of urgency. The gap between a real Stanley Cup contender in Pittsburgh and a fragile team with fading Stanley Cup ambitions was made clear by puck drop. And this doesn't seem to be a problem that Kyle Dubas can solve with a shop or two ahead of Monday.
There are still 21 games left in the regular season, and the chance to miss the playoffs becomes more real with every underperformance. The Leafs still have three games against Tampa, two against Florida and a visit to Boston.
They viewed this house with Pittsburgh as an opportunity to see where they were on the home route.
"It's going to be a really good test for us," Matthews said before the puck drop.
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