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Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, back right, shouts to his players during the third period of an NHL game against the New Jersey Devils Sunday, March 23, 2014, in Newark, N.J. (Mel Evans/AP)
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, back right, shouts to his players during the third period of an NHL game against the New Jersey Devils Sunday, March 23, 2014, in Newark, N.J. (Mel Evans/AP)

Mirtle: Deconstructing the Leafs’ free fall: What went wrong? Add to ...

It was a three-car pileup that many could see coming from kilometres away.

Now, no one in the hockey world can look away.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, who have won in confounding and odd ways for much of the season, suddenly can’t buy a victory and their playoff hopes are hanging in the balance. With nine games to go in the regular season, they cling to the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and have a date with the second-best team in the NHL, the St. Louis Blues, on Tuesday.

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At most, they can only afford to lose another three games in regulation the rest of the way.

While many fans and pundits are heaping blame on the team’s backup goaltender, James Reimer, for the team’s latest skid, the Leafs’ issues actually go much deeper than a simple late-season slump by one player. They were, in many ways, fortunate to be riding as high as they were all year, and the hockey gods have been rather cruel in reversing that good fortune in the span of five consecutive losses.

What follows is a look back, in reverse chronological order, at the Leafs’ woes over the past 12 months, and how they’ve contributed to where they are now.

The post-Olympics nosedive

Red-hot before the break, the Leafs have won just four of 13 games since NHL players went to Sochi.

Not that they have a lot of excuses on that front. Only three Leafs played for their countries at the Winter Games, and none came back with injuries, unlike some of the teams around them (most notably Detroit) that they’re battling with for a playoff spot.

While Randy Carlyle and company spent the Olympic hiatus working to correct the team’s defensive issues, the deficiencies of Toronto’s game in that department remain. The Leafs still allow 35 shots a game (down from 36.3 in the first 60 games of the season) and give the opposition far too many odd-man rushes and grade-A scoring chances.

A strength all year, the goaltending predictably hasn’t been able to hold up to that barrage: The Leafs had a .918 save percentage through 60 games, but that is down to just .903 since the break, in part due to a groin injury to Jonathan Bernier. Even Bernier’s average is down, however, with a .909 in six appearances post-Olympics.

The Leafs’ offensive production has also declined, with only 2.69 goals per game over this stretch. While Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak have nearly a point per game, Toronto has gotten little offence (two goals and four assists combined) from third- and fourth-line forwards.

Only seven Leaf forwards are playing more than 13 minutes a game, while the first line has been logging an average of 22 minutes a night, even during the recent 13-games-in-25-days schedule. Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler are the only forwards in the NHL that have had that kind of workload over the full season.

The mid-season swoon

After starting the season 10-4, the Leafs struggled badly from the beginning of November into mid-January, and it appeared their playoff hopes were going to be snuffed out a lot earlier than April.

At one point, they won just five times in regulation or overtime in 32 games, a clear indication all was not well with their play.

What really saved that portion of their season from complete disaster was a remarkable number of shootout games. Nearly one-third of the Leafs’ games went to the skills competition in this stretch, during which Toronto piled up six more shootout wins.

The problem? Getting to those extra-point games is often cyclical, and they’ve been pretty hard to come by lately.After participating in 13 shootouts (with a record of 9-4) in the first 49 games of the year – basically double the league average – the Leafs haven’t had a single shootout in the last 24 games.

The 2013 playoff collapse

The demoralizing impact of the last spring’s Meltdown in Beantown has hung around this team like a shadow, with references to the Leafs’ historic Game 7 collapse coming up in training camp and whenever they’ve faced the Boston Bruins this season.

Some of the issues in that game have remained, too. Toronto still tends to sit back on a lead more than any other NHL team, save for last-place Buffalo, and no team has given up more goals late in games – the Leafs have been outscored 82-73 in the third period this season.

Some of management’s changes to the roster in the wake of the Boston loss have hurt as well, as they chose to attempt to upgrade Reimer, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur over other more pressing areas, in part based on their play in that series.

Donating more than eight per cent of their cap space to free agent David Clarkson wasn’t the answer.

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