At what point do we stop saying the next game is a “must win?”
Tonight was a must win and the Leafs came out flat, at home, and got dominated. Doesn’t matter who they were playing, the effort was [censored] embarrassing. Full stop. The Blues could be seen with smirks on their faces after whistles in the first 40 minutes. It doesn’t really matter if the Leafs make it interesting in the last 8 games, this is what we got from a fully healthy Leafs team when it still mattered.
No NHL team should give up 23 shots in one period, let alone one with playoff aspirations playing in a crucial game. At home, to boot. An elite, heavy cycle team like St Louis exposed the Leafs’ leaky system like water tracing dye. The system isn’t working, and that’s on Carlyle. On the other hand, even when they were in position to do so, the team couldn’t win a board battle when the game still mattered.
It’d be nice to say it begins and ends with Carlyle. Removing him from his post is the right starting point, but there’s some bigger questions facing this management group in the off season. What alterations need to be made to the core? Who is the right coach for the makeup of this team (clearly not Carlyle)? What is the identity the team is aspiring toward, anyway? Do they aspire to be that heavy forechecking/cycle team like the Blues? They’re a 100 miles away from that. Up tempo, skill/speed, high-scoring team? How can they supplement that, and who is the right coach to oversee it? They certainly need to improve down the middle and on the back end. How are they going to improve a core that is locked into place on long term contracts without much cap space likely to be available? Big questions.
This was Dion Phaneuf’s worst game as a Leaf at a crucial time of the season, and the wolves will be circling. In his defence, he has left games with countless injuries (and recently, illness) this season, and hasn’t missed a game besides his suspension. He gets leaned on like crazy, in terms of minutes and assignments, even though he’s really not of the elite 1D ilk to be able to handle it. Even when he’s himself, he appears to hit a wall after 23 or 24 minutes, at which point he is huffing and puffing and can’t keep up. For an average skater who battles hard physically shift in shift out, a season of wear and tear, big minutes and tough assignments appears to be catching up to him.
While he was the only reason the Leafs were down just 2-1 for the first half of the game, Jonathan Bernier looked a little hesitant to go into butterfly at points in this game. It doesn’t appear his groin is close to 100%. That probably sinks any chance at a sudden turnaround in the final 8 (there wasn’t really a chance anyway).
The most depressing part of the whole thing is that we’re right back at that dismal, mediocre non-playoff team status we’ve been at for years since the lockout. The third collapse in three seasons ensures the Leafs still haven’t won a playoff round since 2004. Only this time it’s without the defence of being early in the rebuild, or a young team on the rise experiencing its very first playoff round.
Essentially, laughingstocks again.