“That is ugly with a capital U.”
So offered TSN colour man Ray Ferraro at one point during Thursday night’s telecast in Dallas, a 7-1 blowout of the Toronto Maple Leafs that abruptly halted their win streak at six games.
It was ugly.
As with a few games the last couple months for this team, there was blown coverage, bad turnovers and a lot of no-win situations for the Toronto netminders, who had perhaps their worst night of the year.
The goalies are taking some flak after this latest loss, but the reality is Toronto has had some of the NHL’s best goaltending on the whole this season. The fact Jonathan Bernier can get bombed in a start like this and only have his save percentage drop to .925 – putting him firmly in the top 10 – speaks to just that.
“I think they fit in with the rest of our team,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said of his goalies, who basically split the shellacking in half with 27 minutes for Bernier before James Reimer relieved him. “I’m not going to throw those guys in any more than the rest of the group. We just didn’t have anything going.”
That’s the right thing to say, too, especially with how many games Bernier and Reimer have won this team this season.
But there’s also a really concerning trend in goal for the Leafs the last roughly 30 games, one that probably hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves. After peaking at .936 in late November, Toronto’s save percentage overall has slowly but dramatically declined, to the point that it’s contributing to losses.
Here’s a look at this via a chart that uses a 10-game rolling average, beginning with the first 10 games of the season and ending with the last 10 including Thursday’s loss:
Leafs goaltending not saving the day
After a very hot start, Toronto's team save percentage has dipped to below the league average of .911 regularly over the last 30 games. As a result, the Leafs goals against are up, way up, from earlier, and that could be a key problem the rest of the way.
The thing is that, on the season, the Leafs numbers in net are still pretty darn good. Even after allowing seven goals, Bernier and Reimer are tied for seventh in the NHL in team save percentage (.917) and fifth at even strength (.931), which tends to be a better barometer for their play.
But as you can see in the graph, a lot of that was during their 14-8-1 start, and since then, Toronto has allowed five goals or more eight times in 30 games and had its save percentage dip to well below average (.903).
When you’re allowing a league worst 36+ shots a night, that can do an incredible amount of damage, as evidenced by the fact the Leafs have been allowing more than 3.5 goals a game over a prolonged stretch.
It sounds odd to say, but they have actually been fortunate that all those goals have been concentrated in a handful of blowouts, as if they were more evenly distributed, their record would have taken more of a beating. (As it is, the Leafs have gone 13-13-5 over this stretch, enough to keep them in the postseason and on pace for 91 points.)
All right, enough of the number dump for a minute.
The biggest culprit in the Leafs decline has actually been Reimer, but even Bernier has been heading toward league average results lately, and he’s never started more than 22 games in an NHL season before. There have been great stretches, sure, but he’s not the .930 goaltender he was early in the year, and it’s not really fair to expect a 25-year-old in his first full year as a starter to be that behind this blueline.
The shame of how porous Toronto’s defence has been this season is they can’t win with anything close to average goaltending, which puts an enormous amount of pressure on Bernier to be outstanding on a lot of nights, even as he adjusts to a workload he’s not used to (both nightly and over the season).
For about two months now, he’s merely been good, and Reimer has struggled, setting up a final 29 games of the season where so much will rest on their shoulders.
The question is: Can they regain what they did to start the year, or is this last stretch the reality that’s setting in?
And the answer to that defines their playoffs hopes more than anything else.
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