TORONTO - Like a broken record, the Toronto Maple Leafs continued to say all the right things Wednesday.
Time to play better defensively. Must be more consistent. Have to play within the system. "We've been talking about it for a long time now," said Leafs winger Alex Steen. "Now it's time to go out there and do it."
They've been saying the right things since the start of the season but haven't been able to do it for long stretches and are 8-9-5 through 22 games, good for ninth in the Eastern Conference before Wednesday night's NHL games.
"It's certainly not good enough," Steen said after practice. "No one in here is happy with how we've been playing. It's disappointing. We have a lot of expectations for ourselves. We want to accomplish a lot this year and in order to do that we need to make sure we bring that work ethic every night.
"So far it's been there a few nights, and a few nights we've been off. We've been inconsistent. We've won one and then lost one pretty much the whole year."
To some observers, this is exactly what was expected - flirting around .500 and on the bubble for the eighth and final playoff spot. But it's not what the players in the Leafs dressing room had in mind.
"It's unacceptable," Steen said before boarding a team flight for Dallas.
The Leafs play the Stars on Friday night and the Coyotes in Phoenix on Saturday before returning home to host Montreal next Tuesday.
If the current trend remains true, they'll probably split the two-game set.
"When we play our system the way we're supposed to, we're pretty successful," said Leafs forward Darcy Tucker. "When we stray away from it, we're not.
"We have to stop talking about it and play our game."
Just what is that game? For most of the season the Leafs have been among the league leaders in goals scored but among the worst in goals against. Head coach Paul Maurice has tried to tighten things up defensively, with some varied success.
"Our chances against are down dramatically," said Maurice. "I think our offence is down a little bit, too, but I think that's part of what we have to do and what we have to go through to get to the point to be a better defensive team. We're on track."
A 3-0 win over first-place Ottawa on Saturday looked promising. But it was followed by a 4-2 loss at home to Boston on Tuesday.
"I'm not growing impatient, I know this is going to be a painful process and it's a necessary one," Maurice said. "Don't get me wrong, we've had some direct conversations about this. This hasn't been a fun place to be for a couple of weeks now.
"At the same time, we have to go through it, we have to get to the next level and be a better defensive hockey club and have a more consistent mindset."
The Leafs rank 30th in the NHL with 3.46 goals against per game.
"We're going to need to be better defensively to be a playoff team," said captain Mats Sundin. "We've scored a lot of goals this year but for some reason haven't been able to keep the puck out of our net.
"It's going to be a constant thing for us to keep working on our defensive game."
Sundin says a better basic defensive game allows teams to win games on nights when not everything is clicking.
"You play 82 games, there are going to be nights where your legs don't feel perfect, or you're not going to have a perfect game, but you have to understand there's times in a game where you play smart," said Sundin, not pleased his team blew a 2-0 lead against Boston on Tuesday.
"You're up 2-0, you have to keep it simple and make the other team start every rush from behind their goal line - not give up any free opportunities. Since the start of the season we've been giving the other team opportunities to score way too easily and we have to get better at that."