The Leafs head to a rink of warm recent memories tonight, looking to get out of a two-game funk in which they’ve been outscored 10-4 and outshot 75-51.
Back at the 42 game mark, with six games to go, the only scenario in which the Leafs could even possibly risk losing their playoff berth was if they were to lose out while all the teams placed 6-9 below them finished really strong. That has unfortunately played itself out a little bit over the past few days. The Rangers won again last night, and combined with Senators, Rangers, Islanders and Jets wins on Thursday, it puts the Leafs only 3 ahead of 8th and 5 up on 9th. That’s still a pretty healthy margin on 9th with only 4 games to go, but the Leafs have to start winning. Even if the Jets do them a favour and lose, falling to 7th or 8th obviously puts the Leafs in a rough matchup for round 1.
As far as tonight’s opponent goes, the Senators are now one back of the Leafs and Ottawa holds a game in hand.
It’s an old hockey adage that winning a few games you don’t deserve to win can instill some bad habits and foreshadow a losing streak. The Leafs scored four goals on five shots against the Habs, some were downright gifts/goalie blunders, and they blew the Canadiens out despite not exactly dominating. Reimer downright stole a game against New Jersey. What followed was two horrendous losses to the Capitals and Islanders, marking three games in a row the Leafs spent dangerous amounts of time in their own zone, more than what’s typical within their usual style of play. As a five man unit, under Carlyle, we have seen the Leafs collapse on the slot in order to help out the D and the result for the most part has been a reduction in opportunities from the low slot, ideal for a blocking-style goaltender like James Reimer. The tradeoff is that this relies on quick, organized transitions in order to execute clean breakouts, and the Leafs have really failed in the breakout department the past few games. Combined with the fact that cycling the puck in the offensive zone on a consistent basis has always been a problem for the team, the breakout issues have worsened the possession time deficit the past few games. The Leafs need to get back to transitioning up the ice quickly with clean, well-supported breakouts in order to activate the counterattack.
In what will be an interesting litmus test of his importance to the Leafs D, earlier indications were that Carl Gunnarsson will draw back into the lineup tonight. The results have not been pretty without him. Logically, that makes sense when you consider the Leafs are already short of quality top-4 defencemen and Gunnarsson is the only D who has shown consistent competency beside Phaneuf on the top pairing. Gardiner-Phaneuf got eaten alive by Tavares and Moulson on Thursday night in what was clearly a clash of playing styles for this pair. Gardiner’s propensity for adventuring around his own zone is not something he can get away with against an MVP candidate like John Tavares. We plainly witnessed the reasons why Gardiner still needs to be left to develop under softer minutes.
The Gunnarsson situation is also an example of why resting players is always a tricky decision. Just how bad Gunnarsson’s situation was or is with this groin ailment is not information any of us on this blog are privy to, so this could very well prove to be a prescient decision by the coaching staff come playoff time. There is, however, a risk component in potentially hurting the team’s momentum at a crucial time of the season by sitting arguably your second best player at a position of weakness.
One other change I would make if I were Carlyle is the re-insertion of Mike Kostka, something Anthony touched on this in his Notebook, in the place of Ryan O’Byrne. I think Kostka can bring the net protection qualities Ryan O’Byrne does while supplying a better first pass.
Let’s hope the Leafs can pick it up where they left off last time out at Scotiabank Place and alleviate some of these growing concerns.