John Tavares stood at the far post with his arms down and a sheepish look etched on his face as Mitch Marner glided toward him.
A moment earlier, Marner attempted a diagonal cross-ice pass, left to right, to an uncovered Tavares for what would have been an attempted tap-in. But before he could accept the feed, Brady Skjei inadvertently redirected the puck past Rangers goalie Alexandar Georgiev for an own-goal in a 6-3 win for the former Islanders captain and his Maple Leafs teammates Friday night at the Garden.
It can be argued that Tavares’ slightly embarrassed countenance symbolized the Maple Leafs’ season to date.
For a team that entered the season with Stanley Cup aspirations and a lineup populated by dynamic offensive talent, the campaign has been a disappointment. The Maple Leafs entered the game with a 17-14-4 record that had them tied with Tampa Bay for fourth in the Atlantic Division. They trailed Pittsburgh by five points for the second Eastern Conference wild-card slot.
“You look in the mirror and take responsibility for the way you played and the way the group has played,” Tavares said. “We knew we were a lot better than the way [we] were playing [and] the results we were getting. We just have to stay with it. There is still a lot of hockey left.”
That start prompted Maple Leafs management to fire coach Mike Babcock on Nov. 20, replacing him with Sheldon Keefe, who coached the team’s AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. Under Babcock, the Maple Leafs were 9-10-4. In 13 games with Keefe, they are 9-4-0.
“He has brought in some new things systematically,” Tavares said. “Even mindset-wise. It’s just a group owning the start we had, resulting in what it resulted in, taking responsibility. The way he wants us to play I think really suits our skill sets and the type of players [and] type of team we have, so just continue to build on it.”
In the previous 12 games under Keefe, Tavares led the team in points (11) and was tied with Auston Matthews for goals (seven). His five-on-five ice time average per game (18:24) and total ice time (244:30) was fourth most, and his total ice time per game average (20:23) ranked fifth.
Which is part of the plan.
“[We] generally try to get our best people out as much as we can early in the game,” Keefe said. “We want to make sure that our difference-makers get their opportunities.”
Tavares certainly had chances against the porous Rangers defense, finishing with five shots and six attempts in 17:43 of ice time. Which was mirrored by what his team was able to accomplish. The Leafs outshot the Rangers 40-22 and held a 68-46 advantage in shot attempts.
“We want to score on our opportunities,” Tavares said. “We want to continue to put the pressure on, keep the puck, create chances when we can get them and capitalize on our opportunities. Obviously, we want to create as many as we can.”