Good-enough first and third periods were spoiled by a lack of finish and a nightmare second 20 as the Maple Leafs dropped a 2-1 regulation decision and were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the season series.
The horrendous 2nd period really changed the direction this game seemed to be going. In that first period, the Leafs only gave up one scoring chance to my eye, the Nick Foligno breakaway early which James Reimer turned away with a good pad save. The Leafs had a half dozen prime scoring chances and two powerplay opportunities. The top line was relentless; on their best chance, somehow Kessel didn’t score after putting a puck through Bobrovsky that spun like a top on the goal line.
Interestingly, with the Leafs PP struggling of late, Carlyle went to the 2nd unit powerplay to start each powerplay and it was donning a new set up. They abandoned a net presence and incorporated more rotation into the unit, with Mason Raymond no longer bound to the left half-wall. There was some good puck movement on the first PP, but ultimately the lack of net presence is probably going to make it ineffectual. Raymond at one point looked like he thought about putting a puck on net, but noticed there was nothing but a clear view for the goalie and decided, “what’s the point?”
The team came out really flat in the second period and it was a harbinger of what was to come, with some long scrambly, collapsed spells spent in their own zone. The opening goal is not going to allay any angst with the collapsing system. Gardiner chased the puck high out of his corner while Clarkson rotated low, but Trevor Smith had tracked back so deep to the top of the crease that a D to D pass gave acres of space for Dalton Prout to step into a point shot. With Ranger and a Columbus screen in his face, Reimer didn’t have much of a chance on this one.
The Leafs just unraveled in this period after the first thing went against them. The second goal started with what should’ve been a slashing call on Nick Foligno. The missed call significantly impacted the ensuing events, as JvR passed off his stick to Reimer and Kadri tripped over the loose stick trying to clear the zone. The Leafs cleared the puck but it came right back into their end. Franson left Anisimov alone to the side of the net (after initially throwing him to the ice with a good hit) and he took a backdoor pass from the point and lifted it over Reimer. Overall, this second period was a disaster, with the Leafs getting worked on the boards and the fast, clean zone exits of the first period nowhere to be seen.
Reimer battled hard throughout the second and again in the third to give the Leafs a chance late, with one sequence in which he made three or four saves as four Leafs stood still and fumbled their clearances. (He also got ran into twice during this game and had to answer for it himself). The Leafs came on strong in the back half of the third period especially. Despite an awful second period, the Leafs probably weren’t outchanced on the whole. There was ample opportunity for the Leafs to put together 2 or 3 goals out of the chances available to them. Bozak missed two great chances in tight in the third and Kadri had a good chance fall to him in front as well.
If there is a “one-line” problem, it’s partly because Carlyle isn’t sticking with what works. There is plenty of points and offensive ability to go around between the likes of Kadri, Lupul and Kulemin and a proven track record of effectiveness, but David Clarkson has had nine lives on that 2nd line and it has looked good for maybe a total of one game. Full marks to Nikolai Kulemin for filling in adequately at center again, but the Leafs have to get their bottom three lines in order and they can’t be waiting around for Dave Bolland to do it. Lupul, Kadri and Kulemin always looks good together and it looked dangerous against Montreal. Sure enough, dropping Clarkson off that line for Raymond saw the second line generate its first two scoring chances followed by a goal from Raymond.
(Note: I say partly, because Carlyle isn’t the sole explanation for Lupul and Kadri being invisible and generating zero shots for the first 50 minutes, playing too much on the periphery).
Paul Ranger is handy to have around for the penalty kill in the place of shorthanded minutes for Cody Franson or Jake Gardiner, but there is a trade off with the 7D. Carter Ashton and Jerry D’Amigo are ripping it up in the AHL and some combination of McClement, D’Amigo, Ashton or Bodie on the fourth line would surely give the Leafs better depth options. Exposing Smith to waivers is understandably a difficult decision; he’s a guy the Leafs would like to have around in the organization and he was named Marlies captain at the start of the year. Smith has scored a few timely goals in a scoring role, but in a lower roster player I take the energy, forecheck and penalty killing option of a D’Amigo. Why Carter Ashton cannot get the same looks Bodie is getting on line three makes little sense to me, either.
The Leafs now hit the Trade Deadline in a precarious spot, in the top wildcard spot for now. Detroit is four points back with three games in hand. Washington is four points back with a game in hand. Columbus is five back with two games games in hand. The Leafs only collected two of a possible six points out of the Islanders, Canadiens and Blue Jackets. They now embark on a five-game road trip against a string of difficult playoff opponents, including the California road trip that has been the Valley of Death in past years. The Leafs are 11-12-7 on the road.
Solving all their problems before 3 p.m. on Wednesday seems highly unlikely, but there seems to be better lineup options available to Carlyle within the organization. For the most part, expect Dave Nonis to leave it to the group who put themselves in the playoff spot after 62 games to find it within themselves to close it out.