The biggest difference in the Toronto Maple Leafs of today and those of one year ago is that this year’s team plays a lot harder.
But unless it starts playing a lot smarter, the NHL playoffs may wind up out of reach, just like they did a year ago and for the six years before that. The Leafs’ 5-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets Tuesday night marked the first time this season they lost three games in succession.
“The try is there but the smarts or the intelligent try right now isn’t there,” said Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, who pointed to his team’s blown opportunity on a two-minute five-on-three power play early in the second period as the point where everything started to slide.
While this team still plays much better than the one that famously fell off the playoff cliff in the last months of the 2011-12 season, it needs to give itself a shake. It was a horrendous night for the Leafs’ defence, which has been the team’s strong point this season.
Asked if he is pondering a move to bring veteran defencemen Mike Komisarek and John-Michael Liles out of what seems a permanent exile to the press box, Carlyle said, “I ponder everything.”
With the Jets holding a 2-1 lead on goals by former Leaf Nik Antropov and Blake Wheeler, Toronto got their big chance almost six minutes into the second period when Antropov and Jets defenceman Mark Stuart took penalties six seconds apart.
The Leafs, though, squandered the five-on-three power play with a lot of questionable decisions. They either picked the wrong time to shoot or missed the net entirely. Typical was a play in which Phaneuf had the puck at the point with lots of time to make a decision. He also had a Jet standing in front of him and wound up firing the puck right into the opponent. Seconds later, Phaneuf had a clearer shot at the net but fired it well up on the glass.
“They did a good job blocking shots and getting in the lanes,” Phaneuf said. “It’s my job to get [the shots] through. I have to do a better job.”
At one point, Carlyle was so unhappy with what he was seeing on the power play he called a timeout. That didn’t change anything, though, and the sellout crowd of 15,004 gave the Jets a loud, standing ovation for killing off the penalties.
Carlyle said he called the timeout “just to settle it down.” He told the players to “try not to force things, just make our plays.”
“It seemed like we looked past the obvious and we got ourselves in too tight,” Carlyle added. “We had a lack of execution in that area. You’ve got to score on the five-on-three.”
As so often happens in this situation, the penalty kill turned into a rallying point for the Jets. Another ex-Leaf, Kyle Wellwood, scored a few minutes to give the Jets a 3-1 lead.
Like a lot of their other woes in this game, Wellwood’s goal was completely preventable by the Leafs. All they had to do was play smarter and harder in their own end, something Carlyle has usually managed to get them to do this season.
But this time, the Leafs decided to stand around too much after they blew a couple of chances to get the puck out of their end. Some good work by Antropov and defenceman Dustin Byfuglien resulted in Wellwood’s goal.
Antropov worked to keep the puck in the Toronto zone and then Byfuglien knocked a fellow bruiser, Leaf defenceman Mark Fraser, off the puck. Byfuglien fired a pass through the Leafs crease, which goaltender James Reimer unwisely allowed to go through to Wellwood on the left side. He fired the puck home for his second goal of the season.
The same trio combined for the Jets’ first goal in the first period. Antropov scored that one, with Byfuglien’s shot from the point bouncing off him and behind Reimer.
Evander Kane scored 12 minutes into the third period to chase Reimer to the sideline and then Wheeler scored his second goal of the game on Ben Scrivens to eliminate any chance of a Leaf comeback, although Kessel scored a quick one after the faceoff, his second of the game.
“We’re doing a lot of circling right now,” Carlyle said. “We’re not engaging in the hockey game from a physical standpoint. We’re not playing in a lot of straight lines right now and that’s been the biggest factor.”
The Leafs get a chance to redeem themselves against two of the teams in this losing streak. They play the Pittsburgh Penguins, who beat them in a shootout last Saturday, on Thursday and meet the Jets again on Saturday, with both games at the Air Canada Centre.
As for the obvious question of whether or not this three-game losing streak can turn into one of four or more, as it did a year ago when the Leafs played themselves out of the playoffs, the principals say this is not the same team.
“This is a completely different group, a different situation,” Phaneuf said. “We have to tighten up and rebound from this.”
This was a big win for the Jets. Going into the game, the Jets had a 4-6 home record and with 14 of their remaining 23 games at the MTS Centre, improving that number will be crucial to their playoff hopes. Now they are tied in points with the New York Rangers, who are eighth in the Eastern Conference, just three points behind the Leafs.