Okay, what started as a troubling trend is now heading toward a full-blown reason to panic.
Maybe not stop-this-18-wheeler-from-going-off-the-cliff panic, but certainly one-round-and-done concern when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs and the NHL playoffs. In their latest lie-down, the Leafs were outshot for the ninth consecutive game and schooled by nascent superstar John Tavares and the New York Islanders in a 5-3 loss that was not nearly as close as the score made it look.
It was the Leafs’ second consecutive loss and second consecutive outing in which they were thoroughly embarrassed.
Wait a minute, Shoalts. Two losses in a row is nothing to panic about. They’ve never lost more than two in a row all season.
Hey, I’ll be the judge of when it’s time to panic. And if the Leafs don’t smarten up Saturday night in Ottawa against the Senators, it surely will be. Every team around them seems to be winning these days except the Leafs, and for good reason.
We spent much of this week harping about how the Leafs’ defensive game is suffering from a bad attack of standing around. The problems do start in the Leafs’ zone, as head coach Randy Carlyle points out, but this cannot be laid solely at the defencemen’s door. The forwards are equally culpable.
Want to know why the Leafs are always getting outshot? It’s because they don’t give themselves a chance to take a shot. When they do get the puck away from the opposing fore-checkers, the Leafs can’t get the attack moving out of their own end.
Pat Quinn, who knew a thing or two about offensive hockey, loved to say team speed is never about players who can skate fast. It is about puck movement. Get those crisp passes moving from your own zone. That’s what makes a team hard to defend against.
But when you are firing pucks into a teammate’s skates or looking for that fancy feed through the neutral zone, those passes become turnovers. “We tried to play a cute game,” Carlyle said Thursday night. The Leafs had 27 giveaways by the time the Islanders were done embarrassing them.
Take yet another bad shift by Leafs centre Nazem Kadri and linemates Joffrey Lupul and Clarke MacArthur in the second period, for example. The Islander forwards cycled the puck around the end boards in the Leafs’ zone at will, as Kadri and company stood around, apparently expecting one of the defencemen to take care of things and send them off on a rush.
Did I mention this was against the immortal Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Eric Boulton? The Islanders’ fourth line, for crying out loud.
Kadri, who doesn’t give the impression all that media puffery he’s been hearing lately never goes to his head, has now gone eight games without a goal. The long pause came after he notched a hat trick on March 30, which is looking more and more like a case of, well, that was pretty good, so it’s time to coast for a while.
Not that there weren’t opportunities for Kadri or any of his teammates to snap out of their daze and seize the game. Despite the fact the Islanders were all over them from the start of the game, the Leafs held a 2-0 lead six minutes in because once again they scored on the two times they were allowed a shot.
One of those goals came on a brilliant rush by Lupul, who opened the scoring by cutting in on goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, taking a strong hit from defenceman Matt Carkner and still putting the puck between Nabokov’s legs before he hit the ice. This, coupled with a power-play goal 96 seconds later by Cody Franson, not to mention killing off four penalties, including a five-on-three power play, should have been enough inspiration for the Leafs. Most teams would realize that once again they were fortunate to be ahead and this would finally be a good time to start working hard enough to preserve the lead.
Instead, it was their jumping-off point. As in that cliff from last season that former general manager Brian Burke liked to talk about.
The Leafs are far enough up the Eastern Conference ladder that a playoff-clinching party was merely delayed rather than derailed. But if they don’t snap out of it, the playoffs are going to be one short party, indeed.