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The New York Islanders fifth goal off the stick of Islanders Frans Nielsen gets past Leafs James Reimer(34) during the third period of the Toronto Maple Leafs versus the New York Islanders NHL game at the ACC in Toronto on April 18, 2013. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
The New York Islanders fifth goal off the stick of Islanders Frans Nielsen gets past Leafs James Reimer(34) during the third period of the Toronto Maple Leafs versus the New York Islanders NHL game at the ACC in Toronto on April 18, 2013. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

islanders 5, maple leafs 3

Leafs blown out as Islanders force Toronto to wait for postseason call Add to ...

As far as Toronto Maple Leafs collapses go, this one remains in the incubation stage.

But even with a playoff spot all but certain, the fellows in blue and white are doing very little to calm a nervous fan base down the home stretch.

Credit them with this much: They always make it interesting.

Toronto laid its third egg in a row on Thursday night, dropping a lopsided 5-3 contest to the surging New York Islanders in a game where they struggled to get out of their own end throughout.

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And, for the third consecutive game they were blown out on the shot clock early, surrendering a gaudy 34-10 advantage through two periods that included a few in-tight gifts to Isles star John Tavares.

It was so bad that the Air Canada Centre faithful even pulled out the mock cheers when it took the Leafs seven minutes into the middle frame to notch their sixth shot of the night.

“We just didn’t play very well the whole night,” winger Joffrey Lupul said. “Unfortunately for us, that’s three straight.”

Being out-chanced is not really a new development for the Leafs either, as even while they’ve won, they’ve continued to sit in the league basement in shot differential all year, entering Thursday’s game with the worst 5-on-5 shot ratio in the league by a fairly large margin.

Asked about it prior to the game, Leafs coach Randy Carlyle admitted it was a concern but also noted his staff is more worried about where shots are coming from rather than the volume.

“What happens with that is if you don’t get it out effectively, maybe you’re dumping it in and you’re changing,” Carlyle explained of the 32-13 shot clock hammering they took earlier in the week. “It doesn’t allow you to establish a forecheck and here they come again.

“In the games that we’ve been effective, we’ve established more of a grind game, more of an effective forecheck and more offensive zone time. Games that we seem to be on the receiving end, we have none of it.”

Thursday night was obviously Option No. 2 – as has been the case far too often.

The game began well enough for Toronto, with Lupul barrelling to the net and beating Isles netminder Evgeni Nabokov five-hole just five minutes in, signalling the first real sign he is fully recovered from a concussion.

A minute and a half later, it was 2-0 when a blind pass from Tyler Bozak found Cody Franson’s stick and he belted home a power play marker.

But from there, it was all Isles, all the time, with several point-blank chances turning into ugly goals as Leafs netminder James Reimer was left under siege.

“Each individual, we’re not outcompeting or outplaying the guy across from you,” Lupul said. “That’s kind of a recipe for disaster.”

No longer is this an Islanders team with only a few bit parts, as while Tavares was the obvious star – and is closing in on the NHL’s goal scoring lead – he now has a solid supporting cast that has made New York one of the better puck possession teams in the East.

(Speaking of which: For all the talk of Carlyle being a coach of the year candidate, Islanders bench boss Jack Capuano deserves a mention or two for coaxing so much from his motley crew.)

On the Leafs side, for all the good that there’s been this year, it’s been that possession game where they’ve laboured the most, which is the main reason they’ve received little love from hockey’s budding statistics community.

It’s a movement that won a few converts when the eighth seeded Los Angeles Kings – a formidable team in all of the possession-related figures – romped to a Stanley Cup last season, using a dominant even strength game in the often penalty-less playoffs in doing so.

The Leafs represent the other side of the spectrum at the moment, as they sit in solid playoff position (fifth in the East) but the league basement in puck possession (28th) in one of the real red flags on their season.

Instead, they’ve won their games with good goaltending, great penalty killing and opportunistic scoring, a combination that can be more fleeting than simply dominating zone time, as every recent Cup winner has.

“It comes back to playing smart with the puck,” winger James van Riemsdyk said. “There’s some things we can definitely work on.”

The good news is that the Leafs have already banked 53 points with just four games to play, making the scenario where they blow this and miss the postseason a very unlikely one indeed.

All four of the Islanders, Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg Jets and New York Rangers still need strong finishes and Toronto would have to go winless the rest of the way, the combination of which just doesn’t seem overly plausible in a league where even the losers often pick up single points.

(Although the fact all four chasing teams picked up two points on Thursday makes things significantly more interesting.)

Ultimately, the fact this is a shortened season could well be what saves the Leafs, as even if the collapse-in-the-making has staying power, it will run out of time to derail their long-awaited playoff bid.

But being routed again and again down the stretch would hardly be a pick-me-up for a young team about to venture where they’ve rarely gone before.

"We're a good team, but we're not playing like it right now," Lupul said. “We’re going to fix it. We’re going to sit down and there’s going to be a lot of video tomorrow. We’ll get back to basics and we’ll fix it.”

“We have to stop the bleeding here and get back to what made us successful,” Franson added. “But our lack of success has nothing to do with thinking we have a playoff spot. We don’t work that way. We work one day at a time.”

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