From the players’ perspective, this has all been a lot to take in.
Eleven games ago, as they swung through typically tough California, the Toronto Maple Leafs had beaten one of the top teams in the league, the Los Angeles Kings, and had 80 points in just 68 games.
With less than a month left in the season, they were in third in the Eastern Conference and ninth in the NHL – in perfect position, they figured, to make a repeat appearance in the playoffs.
Then came the collapse, with nine regulation losses in their next 11 games, a bad enough slide that the Leafs can be mathematically eliminated from the playoff race as early as Tuesday night.
In hindsight, winning six of their final 14 games after beating the Kings would have likely been enough. Now, even if they win out in their final three, the most they can get is five.
“If you look at us, it really sucks, because for 85 per cent of the year, we were one of the top 10 teams in the league,” Leafs centre Nazem Kadri said. “I think that’s something to be proud of. But it hits you even harder when you fall out of a playoff spot when that was the case. We definitely know we can be one of those teams to be reckoned with. It’s just a matter of keeping it all together.”
There were certainly warning signs coming out of that game in L.A. that all was not well with the Leafs. They had had long losing streaks earlier in the season, and often won games in which they were outplayed, as has been well documented all year.
But for many players, the bottom line was their standings said they were fine, despite the warnings from the coaching staff and despite some of the media analysis about allowing too many shots against and poor defensive play.
In Toronto, where the sky is often falling one night and the Stanley Cup being awarded the next, players learn to block out a lot of that noise. So they didn’t see this kind of collapse coming, not when winning came relatively easily a year ago – they had, after all, pushed the eventual Stanley Cup finalists to overtime in Game 7 of the first round last spring.
How they’ve dealt with that extreme disappointment has varied. Some have vowed to be better. Some are simply baffled or distraught. Even after some time to reflect the last couple of days, many said they had no idea why the team’s play has been so inconsistent this season.
“I don’t think anybody necessarily has that answer,” Mason Raymond said. “I wish we did.”
Others, like veteran defenceman Tim Gleason, noted that offence was not an issue: The Leafs had one of the league’s better power plays and remain the fifth-best scoring team in their conference. Where they have to be better, he explained, is in defensive accountability, and that goes for everyone in the lineup.
“I think we’re hoping to get pucks out of the zone, instead of bearing down and knowing it’s going to get out,” Gleason said. “The hope’s got to stop. You’re talking to a defenceman who takes pride in – you know, you hate when they score. You take pride in it. You think it’s your fault every time it goes into the net. From a defensive standpoint, it’s something you do have to take pride in.”
The mood around the Leafs has been pretty grim for more than a week now, ever since their losing streak hit eight games against Detroit in a loss that seemed to kill whatever confidence this team had.
Even if the Leafs win their remaining three games, beginning on Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, they have only a 12.5-per-cent chance of jumping past Columbus and New Jersey and making the playoffs (prior to Monday’s games).
That reality is beginning to sink in for most, even if the “why” part has not.
“It’s been really hard on the players,” Kadri said. “It’s not like we want to lose. It’s not like we’re going out there and not trying our best.”
“Everyone knows where we’re at,” Gleason added. “We gotta win.”
And even that will likely not be enough.