The combination of three days in the sun and a possessed Marty St. Louis was too much for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But even without the two points, the players were adamant their time in the sun-kissed city was hardly wasted.
The Leafs were dusted off 5-2 by the lowly Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday, with a St. Louis hat trick propelling a team that was third last in the league entering the night to its first win in seven games.
Toronto started out well – hitting three posts in the first period – but wilted by the second frame, drawing the ire of coach Randy Carlyle after he had generously given his club a light load on three fun-filled days off in the Sunshine State between games.
“Our overall game has got to get better than it was tonight,” Carlyle said. “We just seemed to get sloppy on our execution.”
Given the timing of the loss, the decision to give players so much time to lounge around Florida will likely be questioned, but with a playoff berth already clinched, the rest may ultimately be more beneficial than the win.
That’s why, even after a poor performance – their fourth such effort in five games – the Leafs said the time away was well spent.
“Tonight was the most energy I’ve had in a long time,” defenceman Cody Franson said. “Coming down here early and taking a breather was real helpful for me and I think everybody feels that way.”
“It was a great time to recharge,” netminder James Reimer added. “Maybe some people will think it wasn’t a good idea, but from our standpoint, when you get that chance to reset the body and the mind, you take advantage of that. I think it was a really good choice by the coaches.”
Taking that time wasn’t the only sign Carlyle has his sights set beyond the Leafs final three regular season games.
The Leafs lineup against the Lightning was a curious mishmash, with the two enforcers (Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren) both out for the first time all year and regular healthy scratches like defenceman Mike Kostka thrust into key roles.
(He played more than 23 minutes to lead the team after sitting for eight in a row.)
That disjointedness on the roster likely explained some of their incohesive play. After getting off to a strong start and an early 1-0 lead on the back of a Phil Kessel goal, the Leafs were a mess for most of the final 40 minutes. St. Louis and Steven Stamkos dominated the offensive zone, allowing the duo to rack-up a combined five points.
Stamkos had the first marker to tie the game – burning Leafs defenceman Mark Fraser wide and roofing his 29 with a high backhand – but it quickly became The St. Louis Show thereafter, as he put two pucks past Reimer and one into an empty net to move two points past Sidney Crosby into the NHL scoring lead.
Amazingly, despite his team’s lost season, St. Louis can now surpass Gordie Howe – who led the league at age 34 with 86 points way back in 1962-63 – to become the oldest man to ever earn that title.
“He’s a competitor obviously, at his size… He’s just digging every night it seems like,” Leafs winger Clarke MacArthur said. “He’s so consistent. It’s unbelievable to see a guy at that age, with the game how it is today, still dominating.”
“They’re great offensive players,” Carlyle said. “You’ve just got to make sure that, as much as possible, you force them to play in the defensive zone. And we didn’t do a very good job of that.”
The loss doesn’t do any favours to the Leafs bid to get home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Winning out over their final three games was their most likely avenue to claim either the division title or fourth in the conference, but Toronto now needs to beat the Florida Panthers on Thursday and get some help to ensure Saturday’s meeting with the Montreal Canadiens is still meaningful.
The bigger concern has to be just how inconsistent they have played down the stretch, with both the Leafs and Habs now potentially limping into their first postseason meeting since 1979.
“We’ve got to do a better job,” Franson said. “There’s things we have to shore up, for sure, but the last thing we’re going to do is hit the panic button over it. We know the mistakes we’re making.”
“I think we’ve got to have a little more desperation,” MacArthur added. “We kind of lacked that in the second and third period a little bit.”