TORONTO - The Leafs are hanging onto what positivity they can muster amid a season-long losing streak that struck five games on Tuesday night.
"We try to accentuate the positives," said Randy Carlyle after a 4-2 loss to the Sharks, "but the big negative is we lost."
It was the fifth straight defeat and six in the past seven games for the Leafs. Despite an engaged effort, they were beaten on this night by one of the league's premier teams, San Jose now a winner in nine of the past 10 games.
Discipline issues continued in the loss, but maybe more concerning for the Leafs were ongoing struggles to generate offence at even-strength, both goals coming via the league's top-ranked home power-play. Toronto has scored just 18 even-strength goals in the past 14 games, held to two goals or fewer in 11 of those games.
The Sharks outshot the Leafs by a wide 35-19 margin at even-strength, scoring three of their four goals in such situations, including the eventual winner from Joe Pavelski, a sequence that saw Toronto's fourth line pinned in its own zone for nearly two minutes.
Certainly dinged by a rising tide of games missed due to injuries, suspensions and other maladies - they were without Nazem Kadri due to a death in the family, Cody Franson to an injury and Tyler Bozak for most of the night with an upper-body injury - the Leafs have nonetheless struggled to find depth offensively all season.
In fact, 84 per cent of their total offence has come from just seven players, one of those being Dave Bolland, who hasn't played in over a month. Lacking much punch from their defence, they've also gotten very little in the way of contributions from their bottom-6 forwards. Tuesday's fourth line of Colton Orr, Jerred Smithson and Frazer McLaren, for instance, has combined for zero points all season.
Perhaps the key to unlocking more consistent success offensively is the Leaf forecheck, productive with pressure during an energetic opening 10 minutes of the second frame - they'd be rewarded for those efforts with a pair of power-plays, scoring on both.
"The forecheck creates offensive zone time, it creates and draws penalties, creates scoring chances, wears opposition down," Carlyle said. "We have stressed that we've got to do a better job of getting in there and establishing a forechecking game and establishing offensive zone time. We've been talking about it. And there are periods of games that we do it very well."
But as has been the case throughout the opening two months of the season and more specifically during a dreadful November, which saw them win just twice in regulation, the Leafs have been unable to establish such pressure for a complete night.
"We have spurts where we're good, I think we play well," said Mason Raymond, who scored the first Leaf goal and his 10th this season. "But again it's only spurts. We need to figure out how to put those spurts together into 60 minutes."
A focal point of concern for Carlyle entering the game, discipline became an issue once more on this night, the Leafs yielding four power-plays while drawing just three themselves.
Unhappy with Andrew Desjardin's body-check on Smithson midway through the opening period, McLaren drew a roughing penalty and while the Sharks wouldn't score with that man advantage they would grab control of the period thereafter. They'd score once at even-strength on a goal from former Leaf Mike Brown before adding a power-play marker from Joe Thornton during a five-on-three advantage; Raymond and Jay McClement called for hooking and tripping respectively.
"That took momentum totally for the period in their favour," Carlyle said of the penalties.
"Discipline's a huge part," said Raymond. "You're killing penalties, you're not playing offence and you're playing in your own zone so we're kind of shooting ourselves in the foot there."
The Leafs have taken 125 minor penalties this season, second most in the league.
2. Busy Outings
James Reimer has faced an average of 36 shots per game in his 12 full starts this season (he left one start after 32 seconds because of injury). But in spite of the heavy nightly workload, Reimer, who faced 40 shots against the Sharks, refuses to be consumed with frustration.
"The only reason you get frustrated is if you're focusing on what other people are doing or not doing," Reimer said. "And that's not in my job description. My job description is to stop the puck and do the best I can to give the boys a chance, so whether we're giving up 50 [shots] a night or 10 [shots] a night that's what you've got to do.
"If we're giving up shots because some players aren't playing well or maybe we're not playing well as a team that's irrelevant. There's games where I'm not going to play well and I don't want guys jumping down my throat because I didn't play well or play well for a couple games. It's not how it goes. We each work our butts off, we support each and we believe in each other and that's the only thing you worry about. I don't worry about what other guys are doing or how many shots [I'm facing]."
Reimer is now 6-3-0 when making 30 saves or more this season.
Tied for the team lead in November scoring with seven points, Mason Raymond has already matched the 10 goals he scored all of last season with the Canucks. A bargain free agent find at $1 million for one season, Raymond has 19 points in 28 games, third on the Leafs in scoring this season.
The most striking difference for the 27-year-old between this season and last is opportunity. Raymond is averaging a career-high of over 18 minutes per game this year, his speed and pluck offensively a valued asset amid a string of early injuries and suspensions.
Raymond's numbers this year in contrast with 2013
4. More on the Forecheck
Following the opening frame, one that saw the Leafs down 2-0, Raymond harped on the need to "create a forecheck". After the game he expanded upon those thoughts. "I think there's a lot of factors that are going to add up to make a team more successful, but that's definitely one of them," he said of the forecheck. "I don't think anybody wants to be playing in their defensive zone if you can be playing in your offensive zone."
"When you stick to the game-plan of just keeping things simple, getting pucks deep, getting a good forecheck, that's just kind of the template that I think most teams have when they're successful in the league," added James van Riemsdyk.
5. Bad Month Over
Phil Kessel finished the month of November with just six points in 13 games. It was among the worst months he's had in a Leafs uniform, just one assist to his name along with five goals. Only Nov. 2010 compares with the mild output he managed last month; Kessel had three goals and five points in 13 games en route to 64 points in 82 games.
The 26-year-old scored his team-leading 15th goal against the Sharks on Tuesday, now riding a four-game point streak. Kessel sits 20th in league scoring, boasting 25 points this season.
18 - Even-strength goals for the Leafs in the past 14 games.
6-3-0 - Record for James Reimer when making 30 saves or more this season.
23 - Games this season the Leafs have allowed 30 shots or more.
41 - Shots for the Sharks on Tuesday. San Jose leads the league in shots per game while Toronto yields the most against per game.
12:33 - Ice-time for Tyler Bozak against the Sharks. Bozak left the game for good after the second period with an upper-body injury.
8 - Power-play goals scored against the Leafs in the past five games.
14-41 - Leafs power-play on home-ice this season.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 24.7 per cent
Season: 78.5 per cent
Quote of the Night
"Sometimes you don't play well and you lose and it's pretty disappointing, but that's one of the best teams in the league over there and in my mind it was anyone's game. Sometimes they don't go your way."
-James Reimer, following the loss to San Jose.
The Leafs host the Dallas Stars at the ACC on Thursday night.