The Toronto Maple Leafs' luck ran out in Vancouver this weekend, hard, and the team has a week to regroup and figure out answers to the big questions of the gaping hole at centre and the continual pounding of shots the team sustains.
The worst of it on Saturday was Dave Bolland going down – so quickly this season a primary part of this team's heart and now lost for possibly an extended period of time. After Vancouver forward Zack Kassian's skate came down on Bolland's lower left leg in the early second period, the Leafs centre was carted from the arena on a stretcher following the 4-0 loss, just after coach Randy Carlyle had revealed Bolland was heading straight for surgery.
Carlyle said on Saturday night it was in the same area as the gruesome Erik Karlsson Achilles cut last year but didn't know the severity. Bolland was wearing specialized socks to reduce damage from such incidents.
The Leafs – who don't play again until Friday at home against the New Jersey Devils – now have a difficult challenge at centre. Tyler Bozak, already hurt, has been moved to long-term injured reserve, meaning he will be out for at least about two more weeks. Leafs management had grim smiles about the situation, with general manager Dave Nonis joking about starting to stretch himself, and Carlyle responding to the question of the void, with a chuckle, "Do I really have to respond to that one?"
The 2013-14 Maple Leafs, until Saturday in Vancouver, have radically defied gravity. The team was 10-4 and atop the Atlantic Division, despite putting the fourth-fewest shots on opponents' nets and absorbing the third-most against – a hitherto-unknown strategy for success in the NHL.
Now down to second in the division at 10-5, the Leafs' luck dissipated in Vancouver. In the few days earlier, the team had picked up wins in Edmonton and Calgary, although it was outshot a cumulative 86-48. But in Vancouver the tally was severely in the Canucks' favour, 47-21 in total and, strikingly, all shot attempts at even-strength went doubly to the Canucks, 54-27. The Leafs didn't even tally more than a couple real scoring chances, as Vancouver's Roberto Luongo shut them out.
James van Riemsdyk is one option to play at centre – he knows the position from college. He sat in his stall in a mostly empty Leafs locker room Saturday night. After trying to explain what went wrong – "I don't think it was for a lack of effort but just wasn't a very good game by us" – he was softly asked by a Toronto reporter whether this had been building. Van Riemsdyk didn't snap back but was clearly annoyed, seemingly more at himself and his team than the question.
"You guy have been waiting for this one, to ask that question, huh. Oh, you have been," he said, before acknowledging, "Obviously you don't want to get outshot like that every game. Again, we've got to find ways to improve upon that."
A magic recipe of a sort must be conjured, following what Carlyle more plainly termed the worst game of the year by his team, a "terrible game for us."
The last time Toronto played in Vancouver, it was mid-February, 2012, and the Leafs were in the thick of the playoff hunt. The Canucks crunched the Leafs 6-2 – also on a Saturday with a 4 p.m. PT start – and it was the beginning of tailspin that saw the Leafs lose 11 of 12 games and eventually miss the playoffs.
This time there's a lot of hockey left to play – but the team feels like it is on an unduly-early precipice, and without their two top centres.
"We have to deal with them," said Nonis after the game. "A lot of teams have to do it, so I don't think we can cry about it. But we need to make some adjustments, make a few changes, and find a way to get through it."