If a crisis helps ratings, HBO is about to knock one out of the park, and the rest of us are going to get an in-depth look at how a team pulls itself out of a spiral.
On the eve of the 24/7 cameras beginning daily filming for the HBO TV series leading up to the Winter Classic matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings – and in the first game of the type of schedule only a Scrooge could love leading up to the Holiday period – Randy Carlyle's charges dropped a 4-2 decision to the San Jose Sharks. "A bench-mark team," Carlyle told his players after the game. "That's how far we've got to go."
In the process, the Leafs lost top-line centre Tyler Bozak to an upper-body injury halfway through the second period.
This is an almost insanely brutal schedule facing the Leafs: Dallas Stars, Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks at home; Ottawa Senators, St. Louis Blues and Pittsburgh Penguins on the road. A Dec. 17 game against the Florida Panthers is the first respite – and the games against the Kings, Blues, Blackhawks and Penguins come in a six-game span.
Playing without Cody Franson (lower body injury) and Nazem Kadri (death in family), the Leafs seemed destined to be easy pickings for the NHL's best team. They were coming off a 4-6-3 November in which they'd had just two regulation wins and all those people who said their early-season formula of being outshot was a recipe for disaster? Congratulations: you're our grand prize winner!
It was a rare first period in that the Leafs led in shots 3-0 until the Sharks recorded their first shot on goal at 7:38. But the Sharks outshot the Leafs 13-5 the rest of the way in the first period and led 2-0 on Mike Brown's second goal of the season and Joe Thornton's fifth, the latter of which came on a power play that highlighted a lengthy run of Sharks dominance that had the home crowd booing. The Leafs were packed in on the penalty-kill, giving the Sharks ample room to roam and pass the puck.
Rookie defenceman Morgan Rielly has been unable to avoid the funk that has settled in over the team.
It was his turnover that started the sequence of plays that ended up with Logan Couture scoring an empty-net fourth goal at 18:36 of the third period; he waved meekly at the puck before Brown's goal; and was victimized again on the Sharks third, when Brad Stuart scored on a shot with Joe Pavelski holding off Rielly and creating interference at the top of the crease the crease at the 16:00 mark of the second period. It was the end of a two-minute shift for the Leafs fourth line of Colton Orr, Frazer McLaren and Jerred Smithson – with Orr and McLaren even more of a liability these days with the Leafs so short-handed in the forward ranks.
Carlyle usually protects his tough guys, but after Tuesday's game he took McLaren to task for drawing a roughing penalty when he went after Andrew Desjardins following the Sharks clean hit on Smithson. Carlyle called the reaction "poor," noting that it was a time where "something should have been said," as opposed to going after a player. If the gloves are off against the tough guys, this may signal the return of the mean, old, Randy Carlyle.
The Leafs tied the score with second-period goals by Mason Raymond and Phil Kessel. (It was Kessel's 200th NHL career goal, after which he was shown on the centre-ice videoboard sitting on the bench with his head bowed while the crowd gave him a standing ovation.)
"We gave ourselves a chance … for about half a game," Carlyle said.
Truth is, the Leafs played better than anybody could have expected after after the first 20 minutes. David Clarkson in particular had two open chances – ringing a shot off the crossbar and then tripping over his own feet at the top of the crease in the second period, leaving the puck lying tantalizingly. Jake Gardiner wired a wrist shot late that ended up in the glove of Antti Niemi. "I believe in this team like I never have," Leafs goaltender James Reimer said later. "We need to keep focusing on the day to day tasks. That's how you keep positivity."
At any rate, there is no place for Kessel or any of the Maple Leafs to hide as of this morning. HBO is here, walking right into the teeth of an inhospitable schedule with a team that suddenly looks as if it's not ready for its close-up after all.
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