Mats Sundin had all the right words before the game – and then some – and Dion Phaneuf’s brow was appropriately furrowed with gravitas afterward but nobody made a play for the Toronto Maple Leafs during Saturday’s 5-0 loss to the Montreal Canadiens. Not one.
And so the Leafs now embark on this week’s three-game road trip to Western Canada riding a three-game losing streak, closing in on what is locally one of the most-anticipated trade deadlines in recent history. The big parlour game here for weeks has been defining what is the Leafs biggest need: stud, shut-down defenceman? Goaltender? Big, dominating forward with touch (Sundin Redux, in other words?) Nights like Saturday make the answer obvious: All of the above – which is, of course, impossible.
Left for dead, coached in the wrong language and saddled by some of the worst contracts in the game, the Canadiens have won four consecutive games for the first time since October. It will now only take a minor miracle for them to make the playoffs.
The Leafs took advantage of Hockey Day in Canada to turn Hockey Night In Canada into Mats Sundin Night. The big Swede was made to feel at home during a pre-game ceremony, marking the occasion of the raising of his No. 13 – fittingly, between that of countryman Borje Salming and much-loved former captain George Armstrong – with a profoundly graceful speech. Sundin thanked the appropriate parties, spared a thought for Pat Burns and Wade Belak, Igor Korolev and Alexander Karpovtsev, and stated the case for the 2011-12 Maple Leafs: “Support them, cheer them on … give that extra energy they need to win,” he urged.
Sundin’s relationship with Leafs Nation suffered from the apparent sense of comfort he exhibited while being on a team whose fans felt it punched under its weight and because he really seemed to believe what he reiterated Saturday: that he wouldn’t trade his 13 years with the Leafs for anything, including maybe even a Stanley Cup. It was fitting, then, that while he sat in the expensive seats with the rest of the sushi-scarfing Platinum swells Sundin heard boos directed at the current team.
They deserved it. The Leafs top line – Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak – disappeared after a few bright flourishes in the first period. So did just about everybody else. In the end, head coach Ron Wilson could only lament the fact that his team couldn’t get a save when it needed it. Carey Price stopped all 32 shots he faced, but few were of the quality variety, while Erik Cole, René Bourque, Max Pacioretty and Lars Eller all scored second-period goals on just seven shots at James Reimer. Wilson’s best line was that of Dave Steckel, Mike Brown and Darryl Boyce, who had 14 of the 19 hits dished out by Leafs forwards. This was an abysmal defensive effort, whether it was John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson blindly firing pucks up the centre of the ice, Carl Gunnarsson doing a defensive fly-by with his stick as Cole moved in for his first goal or Phaneuf turning over or mishandling the puck or simply giving up as Eller swerved in front of Reimer.
Reimer was replaced by Jonas Gustavsson to start the third, and after dealing with his usual post-game media responsibilities with his usual, ever-present half-smile, Reimer buried his head in his hands as the media scrum moved on to find redder meat. It was only when reporters started to file out of the dressing room that he shed his skates and goalie pads. Wilson was right when he said later that the Canadiens dictated the tempo of the game from the start: 29 first-period whistles by his accounting, then five men back after a makeable save was not made on a first goal. The Canadiens, Wilson said, “worked the counter-punch.” The Leafs? They turtled. Sundin heard boos and must have wondered how much has really changed.