Bruce Arthur: These are urgent times in Leafsland, but experiments can’t make up for a lack of goals in loss to Avalanche

There are degrees between urgency and desperation and panic, but they result in the same thing, really: a need to do something, right now, and hoping to hell it works.

On Wednesday night against the Colorado Avalanche, in Game 30 of a skid-sideways season, the Maple Leafs tried a pile of stuff. They put Frederik Anderson in goal for the second time in two days for the first time since 2017. Mitch Marner was back from an ankle injury, and was briefly jammed onto a line with Auston Matthews and William Nylander. Morgan Rielly played an entire game with Tyson Barrie for the first time, as part of comprehensively shuffled defence pairs. Careful with all those chemicals, class.

In a way, the story wasn’t even whether the moves worked. They didn’t, in a 3-1 loss. Sheldon Keefe is figuring out how he wants to coach the Leafs, and a flexible departure from Mike Babcock was part of his appeal.

No, the story was that it was all deemed necessary, in the first week of December. After that 6-1 stinker in Philadelphia on Tuesday in which the Leafs simply quit late, Andersen demanded to play the second game of the back-to-back, which he hadn’t done in the 43 previous such situations, dating back to January of 2017. More telling, the Leafs said yes. This is where they are.

“We hate that we’ve put him in that situation, but we like the fact that he’s in the fight and wants to be there with his guys,” Keefe said before the game. “I certainly wasn’t expecting it, you know, we had talked earlier in the week and Fred knew the plan. (Struggling backup Michael Hutchinson) knew the plan. But as I say, sometimes circumstances come up when a player feels adamantly about it, you have to go with them at times.”

Keefe conceded Andersen’s workload was a concern, and said he was going against his gut instinct. And while he denied this was a scramble for short-term gain over the long-term plan, Keefe called the idea “selfish” two days ago, and Wednesday admitted it would require concessions later in games they would have preferred Andersen play. Keefe called Andersen’s decision, though, “a rallying cry for our team.”

It’s not that one extra game would crush Andersen, not when he’s been holding up the ceiling for three years. You can say an analytically inclined organization knows even elite starters sag on the second night, but then, analytics guys can also do the math on one point out of a possible 14 from non-Andersen goalies this season.

Besides, they don’t play again until Saturday. It’s true that no goaltender has started more regular-season games since he arrived in Toronto in 2016, and Andersen targeted 60 games as the ceiling this year after only dropping to 60 last year due to a groin injury.

But then, that was before the backups caught fire, and before Toronto scraped to 12th in the conference in points percentage, and before Tuesday. After the Philly stinker, Keefe said the Leafs “stopped playing” and Matthews said “we can’t just fold” and Andersen, who saves his public admonitions for the moments they are needed, said, “I don’t really worry about me, I worry about the way we play for the logo on the jersey. I think we’ve got to be more proud than that. Hopefully we can respond, and show what kind of character we have.”

So, yeah. It felt like a big game, all of a sudden.

“It’s early December, but it feels like a bigger one then than usual,” Barrie said before the game.

That was the story: that the organization felt this was necessary, in game 30. They were 4-1 under Keefe before the Philadelphia debacle. But when Keefe got here, he said one of his jobs was to “renew the spirit” of this team. Maybe in Philadelphia, he felt it slipping away.

“Yeah, I think (the sense of urgency) is high,” said Keefe. “And I think our play reflected that.”

And that was the tough part. It was a 1-1 game in the third period when Toronto killed a four-minute penalty, got a power play, and had the building going when Jason Spezza’s stick broke. Spezza tried to keep the puck in at the line with his skates on the way to the bench, but got in Morgan Rielly’s way. Valeri Nichushkin took the puck the other way and scored, on a night where Andersen stopped 27 of 29 shots. Sometimes, things just break.

“The game falls on me,” Spezza said. “Of course, yeah, there’s urgency in our group right now. We know we need results. We’re going through growing pains of learning a new system, and doing things, but also we need results at the same time. And Freddie, that shows us a lot about his character, coming out and playing like that, played a great game. Just makes the loss even harder.”

“Things happen on the ice,” said Keefe.

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“I think there’s always urgency,” Rielly said. “If you’re not urgent in this league, you fall behind.”

They battled, but they couldn’t score and a mistake sunk them, and changing everything from how Babcock did it hasn’t fixed everything yet. The Leafs are falling behind, with a 10-day road trip starting Friday afternoon. The season gets late early, and winter’s closing in.

Bruce Arthur