Sweat dripping from the tip of his nose, Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf tried to explain what went wrong after his team was blitzed by one of the NHL’s best, the Vancouver Canucks.
“We take pride in being a good defensive team, just like every other team in the league,” said the 6-foot-3 defenceman after he was asked about the Leafs’ style to press offensively, and whether it had helped the Canucks find open ice to pile up the goals in the 6-2 Saturday night rout.
“We don’t talk before games about exchanging [scoring]chances, if that is what you are inferring,” Phaneuf continued, taking some umbrage with the question. “But to be completely honest with you, we talk about being a real good defensive team. And when we have success offensively, it’s because we’re good in our own end.”
The Leafs were good at neither end of the ice Saturday and simply were not nearly good enough to keep up with one of the NHL’s top teams. Toronto netminder James Reimer was poor on the Canucks’ two first-period goals, putting his side in a hole, his back-to-back shutouts of early February a distant memory. The defence was also weak, particularly on the third goal, when Alex Burrows had essentially an eon to tee it up on a helpless Reimer.
“It wasn’t from lack of effort,” said Phaneuf of the Leafs’ woes. “It was not from us not being prepared. We just made some mistakes. And when you mistakes against a good team they make you pay – and that’s what they did.”
The humbling loss is a twofold blow: first, it makes the Leafs’ hold on eighth place in the Eastern Conference ever-more tenuous, and second, should the team make the postseason for the first time in eight years, even hopeful fans can foresee a difficult first-round matchup if Saturday night was a show of what the Leafs can conjure up against elite opponents.
The only team the Leafs have managed to overcome of late is the second-worst squad in the league, the Edmonton Oilers, and it took overtime to do it.
Even Rick Nash might not be enough to save the Leafs’ faltering season. Brian Burke, Leafs president and general manager, watched his team fold in Vancouver and then emerged in New York on Sunday morning, meeting Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson. Sportsnet reported on Sunday that the two men met over breakfast.
As the Leafs hunt for any answer available, it must sting, somewhat, for Burke and vice-president of hockey operations Dave Nonis to watch the Canucks beat down the Leafs, having built the foundations on which Vancouver today flourishes. Burke, as the Leafs were practising on Friday, said he had never worked as hard as for the trades he made so Vancouver could draft the Sedin twins second and third in 1999.
“It’s been fun to watch them develop,” said Burke – but the view from his Leafs’ perch is a different one. “It’s not fun to watch them now.”
Indeed, the Sedins – who were in something of a slump before Saturday night – collected four points apiece against Toronto. For Vancouver, it was a showcase of all the team’s elements firing in sync, an exclamation on a month of sometimes erratic play that has still produced big results.
On Hockey Night in Canada, the Sedins delivered, Roberto Luongo was a pillar, and the team’s many weapons were on the mark, including defencemen Sami Salo and Kevin Bieksa, who had a goal apiece.
The win elevated Vancouver to 9-0-3 in its last dozen games, with the Canucks’ last loss in regulation occurring more than a month ago.
“It hasn’t been a perfect month but we’re getting results,” said Bieksa, who said the “mentally strong” team is able to quickly fix holes in its play over the course of a couple games.
Against the Leafs, the Canucks were poised to jump on mistakes and openings. The result was the difference between a Stanley Cup contender and a team whose heralded rebuilding looks as shaky as ever.
“They’re a pretty offensive team, and they cheat for offensive chances,” Bieksa said. “We knew if we took care of our end we’d be getting chances at the other end.”