It’s amazing how quickly things can change at this time of the season. Combined with the loss in Washington, this four-point swing puts the Red Wings five back of the Leafs for a wildcard spot with two games in hand. That’s still a sizeable gap at this stage, but two consecutive losses by the Leafs combined with three straight wins each by Montreal and Tampa Bay suddenly has the Leafs in a wildcard spot and looking in the rear view mirror.
Conceding three goals in nine minutes and losing to the Capitals, and falling to the severely undermanned Red Wings — two non-playoff opponents — can pretty quickly erase all memories of two wins over Anaheim and Los Angeles. There’s a lesson to be gleaned here, though, and it’s not just that the Leafs are a frustrating team to cheer for (although that is also true); at this time of season, it’s not necessarily a good thing to be playing a team on the ropes versus one nestled comfortably in a playoff position.
That’s not to excuse the Leaf performance tonight. This time of season it’s about playing with urgency and desperation, and there wasn’t enough of it present on the Leaf bench in the first half of this game. The Leafs started to pick it up by the half way point, but unfortunately they were already down one and contending with Jimmy Howard’s A game.
The first period featured two good shifts from the third line of Peter Holland, David Clarkson and Mason Raymond, one or two good Kadri moments, and not much else. We were expecting more from the start after the loss to Washington.
Detroit’s 1-0 goal was the product of the Leafs getting caught with Franson and Gleason on the ice at the same time (along with Nyquist being fast). It started with a inattentive pass attempt by Kessel in the corner, before Gleason got caught in a tough situation with a 50/50 puck trickling between the blueline and top of the faceoff circle. Gleason was in between on trying to keep the puck in and backing off the line, while Franson maybe should’ve been quicker to recognize the danger and back off the point into a support position. Really, it was a demonstration of the obvious on why Franson and Gleason would never be a pairing as Nyquist burned through the middle and got a lucky bounce off of Reimer, who made the initial save but paddled it into his own net inadvertently afterward.
The second period went scoreless despite a slight Leaf edge (a second line of Clarkson, Lupul and Kadri made inroads) before the Leafs conceded a dagger-goal in the early 3rd. It was the product of a giveaway from Lupul high in the offensive zone that handcuffed Paul Ranger. A great shot by Nyquist, his second goal of the night, beat Reimer on the far side. Reimer had no chance on this one and it was a back breaker.
The Leafs’ powerplay had been stumbling all night long, with the first powerplay unit accomplishing next to nothing, before Rielly and Gardiner combined beautifully to get the Leafs back into this game eight minutes into the third. That was a play they talk about in their shared hotel room after lights out. Gardiner took off down the ice, Rielly instantly recognized it, and the hail mary play worked as well as it did for Phil Kessel against the Jets earlier in the season. The exuberant celebration between the roommates after combining for one of the Leafs’ prettiest goals of the season at a key time in the game was a special moment amid a frustrating night.
The ensuing full court press by the Leafs yielded some good chances, but it naturally came with the risk of conceding another. Sure enough, with Gardiner caught on a pinch, a 2 on 1 was finished off by Daniel Alfredsson to put this game out of reach. A JvR tip off a Phaneuf point shot made things interesting, but it was too little too late.
- In the final minute, the Leafs should’ve had a faceoff in the offensive zone with more time on the clock, but a missed call by the referees prevented that from happening. The puck clearly deflected off the Red Wing stick and into the crowd. The only reason the Leafs were in a position to take another offensive zone draw in the final 4 seconds was Bozak and JvR’s clever play off the faceoff in the neutral zone to give JvR a quick opening, where he got a shot off and an offensive zone draw followed.
- The set play at the end was designed to try to generate a shot from the Leafs’ best shooter, Kessel, with three bodies crashing the net. McClement had the worst faceoff percentage of the Leafs’ centers, making this a puzzling decision, but he did win the draw. It’s a split-second play where absolutely everything has to go right. Unfortunately, McClement won the draw so cleanly that Kessel was forced to scramble.
Were the Leafs better off going with a right handed faceoff taker (Bozak) and trying to win this to Phaneuf on the right? It’s all academic.
- Something has to change on the first powerplay unit. Franson and Phaneuf cannot gain a clean zone entry without dumping it in and asking for a low-probability puck retrieval from that forward group. The Leafs scored their late goal with Phaneuf on the right; there’s no reason he can’t shift over and play with Gardiner or Rielly. The performance of powerplay unit #1 was atrocious tonight.
- Morgan Rielly put on a show leading rushes late in this game. There were a number of times he prevented a break the other way, as well, with a hard 4 or 5 strides to make up the ground. He’s already an amazing option to have late in games with his ability to join the attack and still be the first man back. Amid the frustration of this loss, that’s something special to hang your hat on.
- Peter Holland played just 7 minutes in this game, with his minutes slashed once the Leafs fell behind. He played the least among Leaf forwards. This didn’t make much sense. He was a part of two of the Leafs’ better shifts in the first period. It wasn’t like the Leafs’ top line was on their game tonight, either.
- Time to abandon 7 defencemen for tomorrow’s game and go with four forward lines in a back to back situation? I’d say so.
- 4 goals in his last 6 for Jake Gardiner. 8 points in his last 10 for Dion Phaneuf. 4 points for Rielly in his last 7. The D continues to do its part offensively down the stretch.
Carlyle assessed Reimer’s game as “OK, just OK” tonight, while Reimer thought he was “good but not great” when told of Carlyle’s remarks. Twitter was then quick to connect the dots between the following two tweets, one from Reimer’s agent (I can’t say whether Reimer’s agent was responding to Carlyle’s comments or general Reimer criticism):
Reimer's response to Carlyle comment: "So he said I was just okay. I thought it was good."
— Jonas Siegel (@jonasTSN1050) March 19, 2014
As is customary in Toronto, when your team plays poor defensively game after game you blame your goalie.
— Ray Petkau (@RayPetkau) March 19, 2014
First off, Bernier’s ability to make multiple big saves in a game and steal a victory at various points this season has set the bar high, but it doesn’t mean Reimer should be expected to steal games or else he sucks. And it wasn’t a case of Reimer playing poorly or making no good saves tonight. (Reimer had a particularly nice save with his toe on the doorstep one minute into the 2nd period).
However, the chances were pretty even in this game and Leafs needed a save on one of those three odd man chances or breakaways. Should the Leafs be giving up those chances? In a perfect world, no. But Detroit got a save (Kessel breakaway) the Leafs didn’t. That makes the difference in a single game of hockey.
There are lots of questions for Carlyle this season and this game was no exception, but I can’t honestly criticize his description of Reimer as “okay” when my assessment after the game was no different. It wasn’t Reimer’s fault, as in there weren’t any decisively bad goals that caused the team to lose, but I thought Jimmy Howard was better.
The way a quote sounds when it’s isolated and disseminated on Twitter can also come off much differently than how it sounds in real time. Listening back to the post game videos, neither comment was all that inflammatory.
It is going to be a brutally tough turnaround leg against Tampa Bay back at the ACC tomorrow night, and now it’s one where the Leafs badly need some points.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs Detroit Red Wings
|Jimmy Howard (15-16-10)||W||33||31||0.939||60:00:00|
|James Reimer (11-10-1)||L||31||28||0.903||57:45:00|
|James van Riemsdyk||1||0||22:21||-1||4||2||0||1||2||1||0||0|