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Mirtle: Leafs awful defensive play finally catching up with them

The most glaring thing about the Toronto Maple Leafs issues these days is they are hardly new.

Or unexpected.

In fact, they were so blatant at midseason that the coaching staff dedicated the entire Olympic break to correcting them, only to have that hard work go up in smoke here in a stretch of seven losses in 11 games since the hiatus.

There's no mystery here about what the issue is, either.

This team can't play defence.

What other possible conclusion can you draw about a group that's allowing more goals than every NHL team save for Florida, Edmonton, Ottawa and the Islanders despite having Vezina-calibre goaltending for the majority of the year from starter Jonathan Bernier?

For all the foofaraw over whether James Reimer played "okay" or something else in the narrow loss in Detroit on Tuesday, the real story in Leaf Land is that Toronto's defensive game has been anything but okay for a whole lot longer than the last few games.

The only reason Bernier's minor injury is turning into a minor cataclysm is, systemically and personnel-wise, the Leafs remain a mess when they don't have the puck and aren't pressing for a goal.

That was hard to miss on Wednesday, when Steven Stamkos had free reign to score a hat trick in the game's first 26 minutes, doing so on three plays that were basically gifted to one of the most dangerous players in the game.

You do that, you lose 5-3 (or worse) more often than not.

The explanation?

"The area in which Stamkos scored his goals obviously you don't want to give anybody that kind of space in that area," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. "The [first] goal, we missed the assignment. The [third] one that came across the crease, we missed an opportunity to take the puck and clear the zone with it…

"We had five guys around the puck. Five people in position. But we were coasting and we were watching."

Literally, in some cases, if you look at the tape, as players' heads were snapping around to watch Stamkos pot another goal.

Whether this is what the coaches are preaching or the entire roster is simply unable to adhere to the plan, it's clearly not working on a lot of nights, regardless of the overall record.

Especially when you consider that, minus the shootout, the Leafs are only the 19th best team in the league, on pace for 82 points and 10 more for winning the skills competition.

"We let their best player get the puck in an area where we can't do that," said alternate captain Joffrey Lupul, the goat on the blown clearing attempt that led to Stamkos's third goal, which stood up as the eventual winner.

For much of the season, the Leafs have been a weak team territorially, one that gets outshot more heavily than any playoff team in the last 20-plus years and sits on a lead like a hen on an egg.

That hasn't been the recipe over these last three losses, which have suddenly thrown the Leafs playoff hopes into a lot more doubt, as the culprit has been brain cramps at key times leading to goals against.

But the way this Leafs team plays, the only path to success is great goaltending, which they've been lucky enough to enjoy both last season and this one. In fact, Carlyle has had very good goaltending much of the time when he's been behind the bench of a playoff team.

The Anaheim Ducks had the seventh best team save percentage his first season in the league, were tied for sixth the year they won the Stanley Cup and then tied for first in 2007-08. Their netminders ran into issues at some point after that but were still average or better until a tough first two months in 2011, which ultimately led to Carlyle getting fired.

Overall, the Ducks record was strained whenever starter Jonas Hiller had even a small slide, as tends to happen in Toronto when Bernier and Reimer aren't stopping 30-plus every night.

That history could be why Carlyle seems to get particularly perturbed when the men in masks are even partly to blame for a loss, as was the case on Wednesday, when Reimer's gaffe a minute into the game got them off to a tough start.

There seems to be almost zero tolerance for mistakes there and never-ending leeway elsewhere.

But it's simply not fair to heap blame on the goaltenders now, not when the defensive lapses are this apparent. These are issues that haven't been fixed, and if not for success in goal and in the shootout earlier in the year, they would have threatened the Leafs season a lot earlier than Game 71.

It seems a tall ask that these problems get ironed out at the last minute, with only three weeks left to play, but the fact is the Leafs still need to win five of their final 11 games to make the postseason.

Given their inconsistency – both game-to-game and within games like Wednesday's, where their third period was an inspired near-comeback – it's anyone's guess whether they can score their way out of calamity and pull that off.

But if they don't, the blame doesn't lie in the crease.

Screen capture

Stamkos goal No. 1

Tim Gleason and Paul Ranger are busy in front of the net on the penalty kill as an unchecked Stamkos sneaks to the left faceoff dot unnoticed. Valtteri Filppula then threads a pass through the middle of the ice and past James van Riemsdyk to Stamkos, who makes a nice shot on the bouncing puck. Tampa does a good job here of turning the Leafs box inside out and creating confusion, primarily by cycling the puck to the point and down low.

Screen capture

Stamkos goal No. 2

A Sami Salo shot from the point goes off of Carl Gunnarsson in front and over the net, right to Tyler Johnson, who quickly puts a pass right on Stamkos’s stick in front of the net. Gunnarsson challenges Johnson in the corner but doesn’t get the pass out and Dion Phaneuf doesn’t have proper stick or body position on Stamkos in front of the net. James Reimer is also very deep in his net after moving to cover the post with Johnson in behind.

Screen capture

Stamkos goal No. 3

The finisher. Joffrey Lupul makes a weak play off the boards and coughs up the puck to Eric Brewer near the blueline. Brewer then makes a nice play to dance into the zone toward the net, throws a shot on Reimer that rebounds into the slot. A wide open Stamkos has snuck into the danger zone – flanked by Lupul – and quickly swats it in.

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