We are now comfortably in that 48-hour bubble surrounding the NHL trade deadline where everybody waits, a little bit like Nikita Nikitin walking in from the blue-line on James Reimer Monday night. Stick-handle, set for shot – move in a little more. Stick-handle, set for shot ... what the heck, nobody’s near ... move in a little more. A few more strides – there’s the shot. Off the post, but a fitting summation of the Toronto Maple Leafs curious return to the regular season after the Olympics. The dreaded post-Olympic hangover, in the unsolicited words of Reimer following a 2-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Leafs will be in New York City when Wednesday’s trade deadline passes, getting set to play the Rangers in a game that will signal a run in which they play six of seven games on the road, including three games on the west coast.
Nobody expects Leafs general manager David Nonis to do anything major, both for reasons of salary cap, a thin minor league squad, and the sense that he’s already done the heavy lifting. Another defenceman of competence in his own end would be nice, although some may wonder about a team that already dresses seven defencemen looking for more more depth. So that means that much of the stretch drive will be spent doing what everybody’s done since the start of the season: wondering whether this group is capable of applying itself defensively the way it does offensively. It’s not a question of doing it night in and night out; just once every two games or so would be a start.
Joffrey Lupul suggested after Monday’s loss to Columbus – which has now swept the three-game season series including out-scoring the Leafs 8-1 in two games at the Air Canada Centre – that the Leafs had “hung (Reimer) out to dry for about 10 minutes in the second period.” That might have been when Columbus did its damage on the scoreboard but the truth is Reimer didn’t get much help all night long. Three minutes in, Reimer was called on to make a save on a Nick Foligno breakaway. Nathan Horton had another break late in the second. Meanwhile, Cam Atkinson and Artem Anisimov both crashed into him in the net – Atkinson received two punches to the head for his efforts – while on the Blue Jackets second goal Reimer had his goal-stick knocked out of his hands by Foligno and was left using James van Riemsdyk’s stick while Anisimov recovered from a check behind the net and snuck in behind Cody Franson to score the eventual game-winner. Making his first start since January 25th in Winnipeg, Reimer also found himself left alone early in the third period, when one, two – no, make it three – different Blue Jackets players took turns whacking at the puck while he was on his back, without any retribution from the goaltender’s puck-watching teammates. The Leafs first line was on the ice; so, too, was captain Dion Phaneuf.
“I wanted to let everybody know that I’d come to play and that they’d have to get in my face for a goal,” said Reimer, whose long-term future with the team is doubtful but whose short-term future ought to be solid. The Blue Jackets answered his challenge, and as a result the Leafs lost a chance to put more space between themselves and a team with eyes at making a run at a wild-card spot.
The Leafs have lost their three games since the Olympic break: 5-4 to the New York Islanders and 4-3 to the Montreal Canadiens, both in overtime, in addition to Monday’s loss to the Blue Jackets. Head coach Randy Carlyle rues the squandered points on the road but Reimer – who hasn’t been afraid this season both to show frustration and speak openly about frustration – remains bullish. “The last three games could have been anybody’s game,” Reimer said, shrugging. “I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.”
Admirable at this time of the year – but tough to do given the background noise.