GDT: Leafs at Capitals (5 p.m., Sportsnet)

GDT: Leafs at Capitals (5 p.m., Sportsnet)

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Photo: Fred Thornhill/Reuters

The way things are going lately the Maple Leafs could shut out the league’s highest scoring team and still find a way to lose.

And so was the story last night against Philadelphia. Three posts – the first off a Kulemin tip, another on an open net opportunity for MacArthur, and finally one off Bozak’s stick in the shootout – undermined a much better defensive effort from the Buds last night and cost them the crucial second point.

The message from Carlyle will be to take the positives into today’s game in Washington, his team’s final shot at putting together a playoff push.

“That’s the type of hockey we’re going to have to play on a consistent basis to have success.”

“Eventually this is going to turn in their favour if they continue to play with that mindset.”

After the game, Carlyle touched on what was perhaps the most understated aspect of the Leafs‘ goals against issues this season – not enough possession and offensive zone time.

“We’re not going to just be a rush hockey club. We have to create offensive zone time, and get a cycle game going every once in a while, and move off the cycle. Just because we’re not an overly large team doesn’t mean you can’t do that. You can do it, because you have speed and skill and you can move off of the puck and people can’t control you anymore.”

Where the talk around the Leafs‘ struggles this season has focused on defensive zone coverage and goaltending (which were also better last night), the Leafs‘ inability to establish a cycle game has had them playing too much of the game in the wrong parts of the ice. Inherent in an over reliance on rush offense is turnovers, driving possession in the wrong direction and leaving the Leaf forwards to scramble on the wrong side of the puck defensively.

We’ll see if the Leafs can bring the same defensive diligence today in their second game in under 24 hours. Back to back scenarios have not favoured the Leafs this season due to that reliance on speed off the rush. Let’s hope they can grind one out today.

The Capitals will be without number one center Nicklas Backstrom, who has been out since mid season with a concussion, and Mike Green, who after finally returning from injury was suspended three games for a hit to the head. Alex Ovechkin has struggled without his playmaking center, posting just 51 points in 64 games; a pace which would leave Ovechkin 20+ points shy of the career-low 85 points he posted last season.

Ovechkin’s 51 points put him tops in Capitals scoring, eight better than next best Semin. The goal scoring has dried up on the high-flying Caps of previous seasons.

Carlyle will stick with Gustavsson in net after he turned away all 27 shots for his fourth shutout in an up and down season. Carlyle has said he thinks Gustavsson gives his team the best chance to win at the moment, and I’d say he’s right, but Gustavsson is also on an expiring contract and management has to decide what the plan is. Surely the Leafs don’t enter next season with both Gustavsson and Reimer on the depth chart, so it remains to be seen whether Gus is playing his way out of Toronto (in terms of trade value) or if he’s vying for a place here with his play down the stretch.

The situation entering today’s game is simple from the Leaf standpoint as they look to attempt the impossible with 14 games remaining. In the era of the three-point game, and with four teams between them and eighth, they’ve got to put together a sizable win streak and it has to start today with a regulation win against the eighth-placed Capitals.

Alec Brownscombe is the founder of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He was also the editor of the 2009-12 Maple Leafs Annuals. You can contact him at [email protected]

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