Anyone following this team in earnest over the last two seasons is familiar with a number of this young group’s faults. One is their propensity to elevate their game to a different level – at the very last possible moment. The shortened season was better in this respect, as a team that the hockey world thought little of went out every night with the goal of proving themselves. This culminated in a showdown with the Bruins in the playoffs, wherein the team’s speed, determination, and some miraculous goaltending propelled the series to seven games.
Fast forward to this season. A group of young Leafs have forced the aforementioned hockey world to take them seriously. Predictions varied this time – but many saw this club as a playoff threat with upside. Is it possible that the mere act of making the playoffs was enough for this group to rest just a little too easily on their laurels?
Certainly, it’s not a defining trait of the team, as some of their best players in Kessel and Phaneuf are rarely short on effort. But one needs to look no further than Joffrey Lupul’s game as this losing streak has progressed to witness this characteristic in action. Lupul, who is counted on to be one of this club’s very best forwards, has only recently began moving his legs and driving the net with the intensity that we know he can bring. As others have mused this season, this is an area where the Leafs miss players such as MacArthur, Grabovski and Komarov. While not the offensive talent that Lupul is, these three gave 100% each shift (pardon the cliché) and defined the fast, determined game that propelled the Leafs to success last season.
For a lot of 2013-2014, Toronto has made do with elite first line scoring, elite goaltending, and a mishmash of mediocre across the rest of the board. With their backs against the wall tonight, it was time for the Leafs as a whole to put up or shut up. No more hockey platitudes – just win.
Entering a notoriously hostile building with an ongoing tendency to cough up early goals? Yeah, to literally nobody’s surprise, the Leafs continued this trend (despite an admittedly energetic start to the game). Firstly, Cody Franson looked as cumbersome as ever in his attempts to hold the offensive line and took a penalty in the process. This was followed by a soft tripping call on Kulemin to put Toronto down two men early. To make matters worse, McClement was inexplicably thrown out of the circle on the ensuing draw. The result – Dion Phaneuf’s first ever NHL faceoff. Salivating at the opportunity, Philadelphia’s potent power play wasted no time in capitalizing. The recently demoted/motivated Lecavalier fired a one timer past Bernier and thus began another night of playing from behind.
Halfway through what turned out to be a respectable first period for the Leafs, Kadri made a nice play to set up a trailing Gunnarson. Gunnarson, who has come on as strong offensively in recent months as we’ve ever seen, put it in the net. Unfortunately, an eager Lupul bumped into Mason as he drove the crease. This was one that usually would not be called goalie interference, but served to nullify Gunnarson’s goal on this occasion. Otherwise, Toronto’s best chance of the period was a frantic scramble at the end of first on the powerplay. The stimulus for this chance: the now rare Dion Phaneuf shot from the right side.
Bozak and JVR epitomized Toronto’s quick strike offense with their goal just four seconds into the second. They embarrassed Couturier and Timonen respectively as they darted up the ice right off the faceoff. They burned the two Flyers with their speed and Bozak fed it to JVR who fired it home to tie it up.
With the fast paced game of these two squads on display tonight, one can only imagine the chaos that might have been had Reimer been in net. Contrarily, Bernier was his usual calming self, with Philadelphia’s only goal of the period being a powerplay deflection. Hartnell got his stick on a Timonen wrister, as the Flyers powerplay cashed in again. In a rare turn of events, Toronto finished the second leading in shots as the importance of this game went directly to the players’ legs and sticks.
With the desperation factor at a season-high, the Leafs came out hungry in the third. After some tenacious puck work, Kulemin found Phaneuf from behind the net. Despite a golden opportunity, the captain was shut down by Mason. As it goes in Leafland, JVR subsequently tried an ill-advised cross-ice pass that wound up on the wrong player’s stick. Claude Giroux raced in unimpeded on the wing and fired a laser in off the bar over Bernier to make it 3-1.
Thankfully, this tally was soon returned in kind. A strong shift from the Bolland line saw Clarkson launch the puck at the net a few times (something noticeably lacking in his game this year). Bolland went to retrieve Clarkson’s rebound from the corner, only to be hauled down, drawing a penalty. However, it would never make it to the man advantage, as the puck found it’s way back to Bolland with an extra attacker on and a yawning cage in front of him. 3-2 for the Flyers.
With the phrase “too little too late” possibly becoming the epitaph for this season, Philadelphia quenched Toronto’s fire with their fourth of the night. A bobbled puck by Phaneuf lead to Simmonds hounding the disc off of an unaware Kadri in the slot. The Ontario native drove it home and that was all she wrote for the night. A late powerplay went for naught and Phaneuf took out some of his frustration on Jake Voracek with a tussle in the corner.
This was a knockout blow to the Leafs’ playoff hopes. The staggering Leafs will have to win at least six of their last seven games to have a real chance at the postseason this year. Hard to believe.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs Philadelphia Flyers
|Steve Mason (31-17-6)||W||34||32||0.941||59:56:00|
|Jonathan Bernier (25-18-7)||L||29||25||0.862||58:45:00|
|James van Riemsdyk||1||0||24:31:00||0||6||0||0||0||1||3||0||3|