There’s an uneasy feeling setting in around the Toronto Maple Leafs again.
And you could hear it in the boos that were raining down at the Air Canada Center after the second period on Monday night, for the first time in a while.
After coasting into the Olympic break on a 11-2-1 high, it’s been a struggle ever since coming back, with all coach Randy Carlyle’s work on the hows and whats of defensive zone play during the hiatus apparently for naught.
A winning streak has become a losing streak, and with a tough road trip coming up next week, there’s the potential for it to snowball.
The Leafs lost their third consecutive game since the NHL resumed action after Sochi on Monday, this time doing so in a 2-1 dud against a Columbus Blue Jackets team that is one of a handful suddenly surging up behind them.
You could see why in Monday’s loss, too. One of only a few teams younger than the Leafs, the Jackets are fast and well coached and strong on the puck, breaking out surely and quickly of their own zone, hard through the neutral zone and then going hard to the net.
Ever since getting Nathan Horton back in January, they have also quietly become one of the league’s best teams, going 14-6-1 while dramatically improving their possession game.
There’s little fancy about what they do, but it’s the kind of hockey that works in the league these days, and in this game anyway, it was in very stark contrast to the mixed bag the Leafs were able to offer up.
“They play a very good team game,” Leafs defenceman Cody Franson said afterward. “They don’t give you much.”
That proved a problem when Toronto couldn’t capitalize in the first and faltered badly in the second.
Columbus got its first goal on one flurry in the middle frame, where they hemmed Toronto in the zone and there were several near misses before defenceman Dalton Prout banged in a point shot for his first goal of the season.
Three minutes later, Artem Anisimov absorbed a big hit from Franson, popped back up and was wide open to whack in the 2-0 goal.
“We just started wandering around,” Carlyle said of his team’s second period lapse, which included the Leafs being outshot 12-5 and heartily booed off the ice.
“That’s a good sign when you’re on the road,” Jackets coach Todd Richards said of the boos. “It’s not pleasant when you’re at home.”
Not pleasant, no. But in this case it was definitely deserved.
The Leafs pushback didn’t then come in earnest until the game’s final minutes, when Mason Raymond put one past netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, and Toronto started to press, hoping for the kind of comeback Phil Kessel and Co. have so perfected the last season and a half.
But what has too often been a one-line team this year didn’t get a goal from its top trio – and that’s typically never a two-point night for this group.
Some of the loss was ultimately on the power play, which went 0-for-2 in the first period to set the tone and now curiously hasn’t scored in six games. Then again, the Leafs have piled up so many goals there that the man advantage was due for a drought.
More than anything, it simply came down to a few mistakes – including on both goals and on several chances that stayed out, with starter James Reimer asked again to do far too much in the crease to keep it close.
Richards was even left lamenting that his team hadn’t piled up a bigger lead than 2-0 after 40 minutes, especially given the firepower Toronto has and the push he knew would come late.
He had adjusted midgame to what Toronto was offering in the neutral zone, and that appeared to pay off, as the Jackets easily cut into the zone and their pressure was unrelenting for most of those 20 minutes in second.
“We had some great chances,” Richards said. “It was 2-0 at the end of two and some of the chances… it could’ve been 3-0, 4-0.”
“Their forecheck is probably among the top in the league,” Franson explained. “The pressure that they’re able to get is impressive. They’re a group that’s on the same page, and it’s tough to play against.”
“They didn’t do anything but go D to D, put the puck in and go to work,” Carlyle added. “That’s what they did. And, at times, we had a hard time controlling them.”
The Leafs originally had a seven-point cushion over the ninth place team in the conference coming out of the Olympic break, a seemingly solid position that left them needing to win nine – maybe 10 – of their final 22 games to qualify for the playoffs.
They’ve now managed now to fritter away three chances to get their first post-break victory and that seven-point lead is down to four points. And every team behind them has one or two games in hand, including the Jackets, one of the very real threats.
Toronto’s problems aren’t new; the fact Carlyle spent all those February practice days on defensive play and eliminating turnovers speaks to that. But what’s especially troublesome is that there has been no tangible improvement in those aspects of their game. With only a month to go, they also won’t get another chance for a major rethink until the off-season.
The Leafs remain a team with some really nice components, including solid goaltending and gamebreaking skill in Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. But if you break down how teams have won in the playoffs the last six or seven years, they’ve done so with a style that has looked a lot more like the Jackets’ than the Leafs’, who can only manage to string together wins when they’re outscoring their defensive issues.
That’s a tough way to win every night in the NHL – expecting your stars to do it all every time – especially during this March stretch where they’re going to run up against a lot of great goaltenders (beginning with the reigning Vezina winner on Monday).
There’s a lot of hockey left to be played so anything’s possible. But if these three games are any indication, the Leafs are going to make their playoff drive interesting, yet again, with no clear answer if they’re in or out until the final few games.
And they’ll do it for all the wrong reasons.
“The three losses hurt because we had points available to us on the road,” Carlyle said, pointing to the two overtime losses in Long Island and Montreal. “We had a one-goal lead in both games. That kicks you kind of. It doesn’t feel good.”
The skinny: Blue Jackets 2, Leafs 1
48.4 per cent
51.6 per cent
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