With frustration mounting to the point where efforts are being called into question by veteran goaltender J.S. Gigeure, the Toronto Maple Leafs are void the luxury of rest as they prepare for their second game in as many nights.
The two game road trip to the sunshine state was viewed as a chance to bring the team together and encourage them to reestablish their identity as they attempt to position themselves back into the win column.
In Tampa Bay, the game quickly fell apart with the Leafs unable to capitalize on an early 5 on 3 chance. Executing on their opportunities, the Lightning took control and never looked back as they bolted towards a 4-0 victory. After the game, and during the morning skate, J.S. Gigeure called his team out, referring to effort and desperation as areas lacking within their game.
“We didn’t compete,” Giguere told reporters. “You knew they were going to be ready, they got beat pretty bad the last game on the road … You’ve got to be aware of these things. I don’t know. I’m a bit lost. I don’t know what to say. We’re just going to have to regroup.”
“I think it was obvious we weren’t ready to start … As a group, we just weren’t ready to compete and do what we needed to do to win the game,” he said. “I mean, we played better in the second and third but that’s not enough. In the situation we’re in, you need to see some desperation out of the guys, some competitiveness and we’re not seeing that.”
“I don’t understand why it’s not happening. There’s nothing given in this league. It’s a tough league to win in, especially on the road. You need to show up ready. Things might not go your way, that’s understandable, and you’re not going to win them all but after you lose a few in a row like that, you need to start showing something.”
One day after the frustrating loss, the Maple Leafs held a players only meeting and with a young team, at times voices need to be heard. The preparation involved in that meeting went to work right away as the Leafs looked to claw their way out of the slump against the Florida Panthers.
Perhaps a positive in his ability to motivate the group, J.S. Gigeure was on the Leafs bench as Jonas Gustavsson was given his fifth start of season. Gustavsson looked solid early making a few nice saves, and the Leafs looked to have raised their compete level, evident in their hard skating and better puck movement. Their seemingly better play couldn’t prevent the Leafs from surrendering the game’s first goal on a Bryan Allen slapshot through a screen beating Jonas Gustavsson.
The game continued at a mild pace, although Gustavsson was forced to make a few key saves, keeping the Panther’s lead to 1. A marginal call on Leaf defensemen Francois Beauchemin sent the Panther’s to the power play. While short handed, the Leafs best penalty killer was their goaltender, but the strong effort of Gustavsson was not enough to keep Steven Reinprecht from giving the Panther’s the 2-0 lead.
The Leafs were unable to capitalize on a power play chance to begin the third period and missed another opportunity to put themselves in the game. Sprung on the breakaway, Shawn Matthias beat Jonas Gustavsson, all but sealing the Panther victory on the 3 goal lead. After a Michael Frolik power play goal, the Leafs looked poised to continue their downward spiral, being shutout in 4 of their last 7 games, before Mikhail Grabovski was blessed with the mercy goal, his second of the year, completing a disastrous Florida road trip with a 4-1 loss.
Tonight’s loss marks the 10th in 11 games for the Leafs and regardless of a slight improvement in compete level has Head Coach Ron Wilson searching blindly for answers. His offense is sputtering and the man advantage isn’t much of one with just 3 goals in their last 39 opportunities.
Amidst the Leafs downward spiral are two key injuries in winger Colby Armstrong and Captain Dion Phaneuf. The energy provided from Phaneuf either on the Leafs bench or within the locker room is a missing component to this team right now and the efforts needed to battle their way out of the slump are lifted by the usual vocal leader.
â€œYou always miss your captain,â€ said Tomas Kaberle. â€œHeâ€™s getting plenty of ice and you miss a player like that. Heâ€™s big in the dressing room. A lot of guys have to step up and play his role. It takes all four lines on the ice.â€
Without any of the Leaf’s four lines producing near the necessary amount to allow them the chance at success, the options are limited and may require a call up of rookie Nazem Kadri. With Brian Burke continuing to state his position within the salary cap and his budget room in order to repair his club’s offensive woes, the amount of teams willing to make changes this early are very minimal if any at all. Although not one to react out of desperation, the continuous drop within the Eastern Conference standings will force Burke to rethink his current stance. Kadri alone will not solve the troubled Leafs scoring issues, but the message sent to underachieving players could prove a necessary and timely wake up call.
The hole in which this Leaf team has dug itself has the potential to become deeper with the schedule not in their favor. Set to host the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday, a desperate Leaf team will need to keep working in order to prevent another disastrous season.
If their fortunes are to be reversed, anything short of a desperate and agressive effort in maintaining a consistent offensive output will falter this Leaf team to a position far too familiar to that of the 29th place finish last season. Carrying the weight of the hockey universe, and his first round pick of the 2011 Draft in the hands of rival GM Peter Chiarelli, Brian Burke cannot afford to remain idle for long.