TORONTO – There was an unmistakable and perhaps surprising air of calm at Leafs practice on Friday afternoon and perhaps Clarke MacArthur had the reason why.
"We were plummeting last year and searching," he said of the team's collapse from a playoff position a year ago, "and this year, we know what needs to be done."
Currently mired in a season-long, four-game winless skid, the Leafs do not present themselves as a group that has triggered any hint of alarm.
"We've had a few losses," MacArthur continued, "but we've stuck to it, we've competed. So at the end of the day, things are going to turn around for us. We've got to know and we've got to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel in here. We've got a good hockey team. It's going to be about managing the stress level that comes in the city. The pressure's on alright. We've got to do something this year. But that's where we come back to our team structure and depend on that."
Save for an ugly Tuesday drubbing in Winnipeg, the Leafs have not played poorly. Three of the four defeats they suffered were close one-goal battles opposite a pair of Eastern heavyweights – Boston and Pittsburgh twice – quality opponents that pounced on their most prominent mistakes. Thursday offered the most stinging example. Cruising to victory at home against the Penguins, the Leafs fumbled their 1-0 lead with a handful of errors and lost in the final minutes.
"We evaluate our game overall and it was pretty good," Jay McClement said of an effort which saw his team locked into an effective approach for 53 minutes, "but we just have to realize the difference between winning and losing can be a shift here or a shift there and that's what it was. You look back and evaluate the game and we have to try to take those positives from 95 per cent of the game. It's just those little mistakes against good teams, obviously they jumped on them and it cost us the game."
Silver linings aside, the Leafs, like all teams in the playoff tussle, can ill afford a lengthy slide.
Vastly improved in the loss to Pittsburgh, recent defensive issues will have to continue to be ironed out. Goaltending from the one-two punch of James Reimer and Ben Scrivens could certainly stand to improve. And greater balance to an inconsistent offensive attack – they've scored two or fewer goals in three of the four losses – is needed, an area that will be helped with the imminent return of Joffrey Lupul, who declared himself fit to return against the Jets on Saturday.
"We have to keep playing the system and keep playing the style and you've got to just believe that it's going to flip around and you're going to win three or four in a row and erase all this," MacArthur said.
Despite the rocky patch, Randy Carlyle has urged his team to adhere to the structure which allowed an early, and perhaps unlikely, climb into a playoff position – seventh in the East with 31 points. His approach, ahead of a critical tilt against Winnipeg, appeared more cool and even-keeled than anything else. At one point in Friday's practice, he halted a drill mid-stream, gathered all 14 forwards before calmly addressing the group.
"What we've tried to do is we've tried to point out the positives," he said afterward. "We're going to have to correct some of the negatives that are taking place on the ice, but overall, we did a lot more good things than we did bad things and we still gave ourselves a chance.
"The bottom line is, if we can continue to push for a higher level of play and some individual efforts, we'll be alright as long as we continue to work hard and stay with it."