Just when things were looking comfortable for the
Leafs, they had to go and make it interesting again.
Really, is there any other way this team operates?
After pulling off a rare feat by taking four of six points on a West Coast swing through Anaheim, San Jose and LA, the Leafs lost to two teams chasing them in the playoff race in their Conference.
By no means could the Leafs have mathematically separated themselves from the Capitals and Wings for good, but they could have distanced themselves to the point of only looking ahead from here on out. Instead, everyone is back to looking behind them in the standings and calculating what bare minimum of points is required for the Leafs to still make the playoffs.
Here’s the bigger issue: The Leafs have the worst road record of any team in an Eastern conference playoff spot right now. The Leafs are 14-15-7 on the road. Their #1 ranked home PP unit is 18th on the road. They don’t get their match-ups, they don’t execute their special teams, and they are under .500.
The Leafs really didn’t have much pressure on them at this same stage last season. They weren’t expected to make the playoffs, they did, and everything after that was gravy. This season, the expectations are, rightly or wrongly, much higher. The East is bad and the Leafs really shouldn’t fear any team other than Boston. If they make the playoffs, for example, and lose to Tampa, heads won’t roll but people won’t be happy.
The good news is that seven of the next nine Leafs game are at home. The bad news is that pretty well none of those games are easy. At home, in order, the Leafs have Tampa, Montreal, St. Louis, Detroit, Calgary, Boston, and Winnipeg. Mixed in are road games against the Devils and Flyers. In the East, only Pittsburgh and Boston have better home records than the Leafs 22-11-1 mark, so hopefully that can carry the Leafs through to at least splitting those games and putting them at or around 90 points before taking off on a three game road trip to end the season.
To end the season the Leafs are going through Tampa, Florida, and Ottawa (which is pretty well a home game). You don’t want to be going into those final three games looking to solidify a playoff spot. You want to be going into those games already in and just looking to move up the standings. Tampa is having a good year and that game could decide where these two teams finish in the standings. Luongo and the Panthers won’t be easy no matter who is actually playing for them. And you just know the Sens would love to play spoiler amid their disappointing season. Heck, if it comes down to the final game of the season and Ottawa has a chance to ensure the Leafs don’t make the playoffs, that will be their Stanley Cup. You don’t want it to come to that no matter how successful the Leafs have been against Ottawa lately.
For now, the bigger concern is that the Leafs had a chance to really suffocate teams behind them only to come out flat. The Washington game looked like the Leafs were going through the motions; against Detroit, they didn’t necessarily come out flat, but they didn’t come out and take control of that game, either. The Wings out-shot them in the first and ended the period with a lead. Fans were making jokes about losing to an AHL team, and while I wouldn’t go as far to say they were an AHL team, I wouldn’t hesitate to call that a preseason roster. There were some veterans in there, Howard started, and from there it was a bunch of fresh faced kids that were apparently nervous in the morning skate. That’s a preseason roster. The Leafs could have put their foot firmly on the throats of Washington and Detroit, but instead both teams are still standing with life remaining.
Last season, the Leafs had a chance to clinch a playoff spot against a team chasing them at home, the Islanders, scored two early, and lost 5-3. The next game they clinched against Ottawa. Maybe they needed a wake-up call and last night was it. Maybe it’s a sign of things to come.
Hopefully, though, some home cooking is just what the doctor ordered, but these are not easy home games the Leafs have coming up and teams are inching closer to them in the standings.
I guess it wouldn’t be the Leafs if they did things the easy way without making anyone worry or stress down the stretch. With seven of their next nine games at home though, they have to secure a playoff spot before heading on the road to end the season.
- So Kessel is still human. He’s pointless in four straight games, but with seven shots on net against Detroit you have to think that he’s turning it back up and is going to snap out of it soon. The four-game pointless streak matches his season long, which was in November, when he actually went 7/8 games without a point. It’s going to be trouble for the Leafs if that happens again.
- Since the first game of the season the Leafs have been trying that bank play off dump-ins. Against the Habs in the season opener, it was Raymond sending a long one in for Bodie that Price stopped, but it was nice to see Rielly and Gardiner connect with it since they’ve been trying that play for quite some time. Even more impressive for Rielly was the rush leading to Phaneuf’s goal against the Kings. He patiently regrouped the rush with Anze Kopitar on him in his own zone, moved up ice, read that the penalty killer was cheating for the drop pass play, skated it into the zone, took a hit, and still made contact with the puck so the Kings couldn’t easily dump it back down. Kadri swooped in and made a hang of a pass to Phaneuf for the goal.
- Rielly has really been coming on lately, so it was surprising that he only played 14:50 against the Wings yesterday. Gardiner was the only Leafs defenseman with more shots on (3 compared to Rielly’s 2), and Rielly notched an assist. The Leafs were losing a little over halfway through the first, too, so it’s not like they were holding a lead and went with veterans. They were losing pretty well the entire game.
- Didn’t fully understand the Sportsnet panel linking Clarkson and Joel Ward of the Caps and noting that Ward is a guy Clarkson should try to play like. Clarkson is listed generously at 6’1, 200 pounds. Joel Ward looks to have been lowballed at his listing of 6’1, 226 pounds. Even if he is “only” 226, that means he’s at least 26 pounds heavier than Clarkson (who I’d bet isn’t even 200 pounds, to be honest). That’s a massive gap. In game style they might be similar guys as in they are grinders, both are supposed to get in on the forecheck, and both are two-way type players, but Clarkson is literally physically incapable of doing what Ward can do because Ward is a truck who is extremely strong whereas Clarkson isn’t a physical specimen at all. In fact, Jack Hillen (5’10, 190) pushed him off the puck a few times in the game against the Caps.
- That being said, Clarkson strung some really nice shifts alongside Peter Holland and Mason Raymond in the game against Detroit as they dominated the cycle and threw some pucks on net. Last season, Clarkson played with Elias and Zajac more than anyone else. Now, I’m not saying Holland is Zajac by any means, but stylistically they are similar… they aren’t extremely flashy but they are skilled, they have size, they are good along the boards, and they are two-way type players. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Clarkson has fit in more with Holland because that’s the type of player Clarkson is used to playing with from his Jersey days, versus the flash and dash of Kadri.
- All that said, Clarkson is on a 10-game pointless streak. With the way the Leafs play (high offense, rely on goalies to bail them out defensively), it’s pretty clear that this lack of secondary scoring is what kills them. This is what they were counting on when they brought in Clarkson and Bolland… that they’d augment the top scorers and also help in other facets of the game. Bolland’s replacement has been a mash of players, but the guy they want it to be –Holland– is pointless in his last 13 games. Everyone knew Phil and JVR would cool down eventually and it’s these guys who are supposed to be picking up the slack.
- Here’s the thing I didn’t understand about the final faceoff play with McClement in to take it. Besides the fact that he wasn’t having a great night at the dot (7/19), what was the plan? There was under four seconds left and he’s a lefty in the left faceoff circle. With Kessel on the wall it seems the plan was to win it to the outside and Kessel was going to try cut in and shoot. By no means did that play cost them the game, but boy that’s a tough thing to ask to do and think it’s going to be successful. The tough part isn’t winning the draw to the outside or cutting in for the shot, it’s holding off the Wings players lined up on the inside and charging through. With seconds left in the game you don’t have time to make passes or force any Wing to respect your other options; you’re just trying to get it on net and hope for the bounce. More than anything, that’s why I was surprised Bozak wasn’t taking that draw trying to tee-up Phaneuf in the high slot for a one timer in the middle of the ice. Maybe the plan was win it to Phil on the far wall, who would one touch to Dion at the blue line for a one timer. Seems like that would be asking a lot though with limited time left.
- The other thing that was a little confusing — on the 6v5 the Leafs had against the Wings where they pulled their goalie — was Franson and Phaneuf switching sides to both open up for one timers. Why then? All year they’ve been on their strong sides for power plays, but suddenly they switch sides? They play their strong sides to keep pucks in better, that’s pretty obvious, but Dion used to make a living from that right side of the ice launching bombs. He really hasn’t been allowed to do that in the past two years (He’s on pace for 35 points this season)..
- Points by Leafs defensemen over each of their last 20 games:
- Phaneuf- 12 points
- Rielly- 9 points
- Gardiner- 7 points
- Franson- 7 points
- Ranger- 5 points
- Gleason- 3 points
Nothing there should make it unanimous to split up Franson and Phaneuf on the PP, but Franson is getting PP1 time and is tied for third in defense scoring over a quarter of the season. He has one point in his last 12 games. The PP has had some zone time, but they aren’t dangerous or generating enough chances that the Leafs can build on when the power play ends. Everyone understands the philosophy of sticking with the group that has been getting the job done, but eventually Carlyle has to pull the plug. We’ve seen these long holdouts on things that aren’t working since Carlyle has gotten here (Kostka, Holzer, etc. etc.), so we’ll see how long this goes on and/or if they can turn it around. This team relies on their PP more than almost anybody else in the league. If it’s not clicking, they are going to struggle.
- The other worry has to be goaltending, but not in the sense that you’re thinking. Reimer has been a good solid goalie this season. He has a .913sv% and has won this team some games on his own. You can’t ask for much more than that for a guy in his role. He has been good this year, maybe even really good if you factor in how bad the Leafs are defensively. But Bernier has been great this season. In 2012-13, it took Reimer with a .924sv% to make the playoffs; this year Bernier is at .925%. That’s the kind of goaltending this team needs to be successful. It is just the reality. If they are getting ~.913% goaltending the rest of the way, it’s going to come right down to the wire. That’s a lot to ask of Reimer considering he’s barely played in 2014, but that’s just our reality. Good goaltending doesn’t cut it for this team. They need great goaltending.
- Not sure what to make of the Leafs bad starts lately, but do know that the Leafs got out-coached against Washington in their slow start on Sunday. The first time the Leafs played the Caps they blanketed Ovechkin on the power play and it caught the Caps off guard because they still tried to force feed him and looked terrible in the process. In second game against the Caps, Washington did it again but instead tried to get Ovechkin to bring his checker to the front of the Leafs net to create traffic while launching pucks on net. The third game –Sunday– the Caps just completely ignored Ovechkin, went 4v3 on the other side of the ice, and they exposed the Leafs. Hey, the first time it worked and the Leafs looked like geniuses, and the second time the Leafs lost but Washington didn’t have any PP goals. The third time speaks for itself. If you give an NHL team three kicks at the can, they are probably going to figure it out (one of the best PPs, to boot). The Leafs looked as if they thought they could come out against Washington, blanket Ovechkin on the PP for a third time in a row, and Washington wouldn’t figure it out? Instead, they got out classed. The Washington players were ready and didn’t even look at Ovechkin on those PP goals. Washington scores two power play goals, the Leafs score none on their PPs, and they lose the game 4-2 (with an empty netter) in regulation.
- Yes, Gleason got caught flat footed on the Nyquist breakaway goal, but if he just turned around and tried to skate with him from the start… he still would have been blown around. He went for it all or nothing to start instead of just prolonging the inevitable. That puck bounced on Phil when he tried to make the quick pass, and Gleason and Franson were caught. There was just no chance either of them were ever going to catch Nyquist on that quick turn of play.
- Starting to think the Leafs tried to make a move for Vanek because they don’t think Bolland is coming back this season. Even with the Leafs asking the Isles to retain more salary than they did to send him to Montreal, the numbers just didn’t add up to me or make sense when factoring in a Bolland return. It’s just food for thought. Have a beer with a buddy and discuss that one.
“So he said I was just okay. I thought I played good, but obviously you’d like to make at least one of those saves in the third.”
- Reimer, responding to Carlyle’s comments about his game against Detroit.
I don’t think Carlyle was unfair in that assessment. I don’t think Reimer was wrong in defending himself, either. But are these two communicating to each other through the media? What is going on here? We know Carlyle and Grabovski weren’t on speaking terms by the end of last season, so is that going on, again? I don’t know why the Leafs feed the media beast like this. They make this a story, we have to hear about it all day, and every post game from now on they will be asked about each other. You also have Reimer’s agent throwing out tweets. It’s just high-school drama. Speak to each other face-to-face behind closed doors. Be adults about this.
“I still think there’s some room for Nazzie to grow. But I still think you’ve got to give the kid credit. He’s under a microscope. He’s under a lot of pressure to come in as a young player and play those minutes. We have all kinds of confidence [in him]. [But] maybe not as much confidence as he has if you know what I mean.”
- Randy Carlyle, on Nazem Kadri.
I actually thought this was a subtly nice endorsement for Kadri. The Leafs have been patient with him and they know there is still another level for Naz to reach, but they are letting the process unravel. He’s playing just under 18 minutes a night, getting steady PP time, and is on pace for over 50 points in his first full 82-game season. He still has his problems and can be a frustrating player that, as Carlyle alluded too, thinks he should be playing more than maybe he should, but this has been an optimistic season of growth for Kadri as far as I’m concerned.
“We know they play one dimensional … Cheat for breakaways”
- Drew Doughty, on the Leafs top line.
Sorry, but he’s not wrong.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1 – I think I’d still keep the same line-up the Leafs had against the Wings, except maybe swap Ranger with Ashton and run a conventional 12-6. JVR-Bozak-Kessel, Lupul-Kadri-Kulemin and Raymond-Holland-Clarkson is the best the Leafs can do in the top 9 right now so Carlyle just has to run with it and hope they get the job done. I thought Carlyle did a nice job of shaking the lines up against the Wings when it wasn’t working, and I don’t blame him for doing that, but at the end of the day that’s the best the Leafs can do. Just have to run with it now and get some results.
2 – I think I’d put Rielly on the top power play unit because he’s done a great job lately of rushing the puck and gaining the zone, which has been a huge problem for that top unit. The only bad thing about Rielly compared to Gardiner is his shot, but Rielly has been so good at carrying the puck and moving it that I’d reward him over Gardiner. That said, either one is a nice option and worthy shake up. I said this last Notebook and it still applies three games later; PP1 looks bad and needs a shake up. I suspect they’ll get the home game to show what they can do since they’ve been so good at home, but if they don’t produce in the ACC in short order, Carlyle would really seem to have no choice but to mix it up.
3 – I think I’d run with Reimer all the way unless he really gave me a reason not too. Reimer has carried the team before. Let’s see, if we get some games under his belt, if he can gain some confidence and really carry the workload. Anyone who thought he would step right in and be great was dreaming. With a few games strung together now, hopefully he really gets rolling. You have to trust him because he’s done it before.
4 – If there’s one thing I could change about this team, I think it would be the forwards leaving the zone early and Leafs defensemen going high off the glass into the neutral zone, where the opposition just regroups and re-enters the Leafs zone. I can understand doing it in November against Edmonton, but it’s March. Playoffs started last week in my mind. It’s not going to fly.
5 – I think, with 12 games left, anything close to a 6-6-0 record should get the Leafs in. But getting in by the skin of their teeth and playing Boston again in round one can’t be acceptable given where they’ve been at all season. There was really no sense of urgency at the start of the Detroit game and it has to change starting tonight against Tampa. They need to push for a top three seed in their division so they can play the Habs or Tampa. The difference between playing the Bruins compared to the Habs or Lightning is gigantic.
I don’t think I’ll panic unless the Leafs lose tonight against Tampa and again at home against Montreal on Saturday. I still think they are okay for now. That changes if they lose these next two.