TORONTO – Doing just enough to lose hockey games, the Maple Leafs' playoff chances are dangling on an ever-thinning thread.
They matched their second-longest losing skid of the year on Saturday evening, making an error too many in their fourth straight loss, a stinging 4-3 defeat to Montreal at the ACC. Falling further back of the Canadiens – now a five-point gap – and the surging Lightning for the final two spots in the Atlantic division, Toronto is hanging onto to the first wild card position in the East, in danger of falling out altogether if change doesn't come soon enough.
“We've been close, but close isn't good enough right now,” said Dion Phaneuf of four straight losses, all against fellow Eastern contenders vying for a spot in the post-season.
Like in narrow losses to Washington, Detroit and Tampa previously, the Leafs shot themselves in the foot just a time or too many on this night, dropping the season series to Montreal in the process.
“The margin of error now in these games is so, so, so close that one bounce or one misplay or one unfortunate mistake cost us points,” said head coach Randy Carlyle afterward.
A stumbling start and more ineffective goaltending certainly didn't help matters, but it was simple errors in execution that ultimately set the stage for another defeat.
Most notable among them were mistakes from two of the team's best players. There was an early and careless neutral zone turnover from Phil Kessel that fed the Canadiens first goal and a later failure from Dion Phaneuf to clear the puck that found the back of the net on Tomas Plekanec's eventual game-winner.
“We worked hard,” said Carlyle, his team rallying from a pair of deficits. “[But] we have to work equally as hard and clean up some of the mistakes that we make. Turn the puck over in the neutral ice and it comes back to haunt you. Make a mistake on a turnover penalty killing and it comes back and haunts you. Those are difference-makers in the games and that's what happens when the intensity ramps up in all these games.”
Running wild with points in the weeks before and after the Olympic break, Toronto had not lost four straight since the early days of January. They vaulted to 11 wins in 14 games after that stinging streak, requiring a similar resurgence now to keep hold of a second straight playoff berth.
The sky may be falling in certain pockets of the city with memories of the infamous 18-wheeler still fresh, but in reality the Leafs situation is not dire to the point that they can't right themselves with 10 games to play.
They've lost a series of close games of late, doing just enough to lose on each given night. Losses count the same though and that tide – now trending in the negative with clubs in Detroit, Washington and Columbus hunting them down – has to start shifting for the better in a hurry with the Devils up next on Sunday night.
“We're still in a good spot,” said Phaneuf, ever optimistic afterward. “Obviously we've slid a little bit because of not winning games, but we're still right there.”
1. Stunted Starts
Toronto allowed the first goal for the sixth consecutive game and 37th time this season, actually falling behind by two for the fourth time in those six games. And while they managed to erase that deficit in short order, the trend of digging early holes is a definite negative at this point in the year and any point for that matter.
“It's tough coming back,” said James Reimer of the constant need for rallies. “We've proven that we can do it. We've got enough character and desire in here to fight back in games, but it obviously makes it a lot tougher on ourselves.”
Capitalizing on Kessel's giveaway on the opener from Max Pacioretty, Montreal jumped ahead by two on a Rene Bourque breakaway, the Canadiens winger storming by the pair of Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner before beating Reimer with a weak shot glove-side.
“I think maybe we just all need to be a little sharper when it starts and obviously me included,” said Reimer.
The Leafs dropped to 11-22-4 when yielding the first goal this season.
2. Just Okay
Reimer's inability to fill the hole left by Jonathan Bernier continued Saturday with the 26-year-old yielding four goals on 36 shots. He owns a .899 save percentage during six appearances in place of the team's injured No. 1.
Though he made some fine stops in allowing his team to rally from the early 2-0 hole – including a glove stop just moments before Joffrey Lupul scored the Leafs first goal – Reimer ultimately could not deliver enough of the timely big saves required for victory.
This was evident on Plekanec's game-winner.
Reimer slid right to left on Andrei Markov's cross-ice feed to Plekanec, but could not keep the shot – from just above the goal-line – from finding a slight hole.
“I feel like it's a tough bounce,” he said. “Obviously they made a good play to put it through the seam, but I thought I gave myself a chance to get over there, but it just found a way through.”
Reimer remains winless on home ice since Jan. 15, last winning a start on Jan. 21.
Bernier meanwhile continues to inch back from a groin injury, but not quickly enough for the team's recent fortunes. The 25-year-old skated for a third straight day Saturday morning, but will miss his fifth straight game Sunday against the Devils. “He still has some issues as far as he's not 100 per cent,” said Carlyle, “so until he's 100 per cent he's not available to us.”
3. Slow Ride
A slogging rehabilitation of nearly five months finally came to an end Saturday for Dave Bolland, who returned to the Toronto lineup against Montreal. It was the first game for the 27-year-old since Nov. 2, when a tendon on the outside of his left ankle was sliced by the skate blade of Canucks forward Zack Kassian. He missed 56 games.
“He's progressed along over the last three weeks to a point where he feels and the doctors feel medically that's he close to a 100 per cent ready,” said Carlyle, wary of driving up expectations for Bolland, a favourite of his upon landing with the Leafs last summer.
“I don't want to put too much emphasis on him specifically because when a player hasn't played in 60 games it's a lot to ask of him to come back in and be where he would've been coming out of training camp and playing with our hockey club early in the season.”
Bolland's addition gave Carlyle his first full group of forwards at any point this season with neither injuries nor suspensions on the docket. All of which allowed him to comfortably employ four lines in the fashion he may have imagined at the start of the year. Indicative of a balanced attack and a considerable shift from recent weeks and much of the year, Colton Orr was the lone forward to play fewer than eight minutes against Montreal.
“It gives you a little bit more depth throughout your lineup, a veteran guy, and it kind of slots people more into where we envisioned them at the beginning of the year,” said Carlyle, who reunited Bolland with Mason Raymond and David Clarkson.
Bolland, whom the Leafs made room for by sending Carter Ashton and Peter Holland to the Marlies, was lost to injury in early November just a week after Tyler Bozak went out with a hamstring issue, drastically affecting the team's depth at centre ice.
He played nine minutes against the Canadiens, keeping his shift lengths short at just 33 seconds.
“That first shift was probably the hardest,” Bolland said. “It's getting the timing and figuring things out out there. You sort of got to get used to it. I think the heartbeat was hurting a little bit too.”
4. Secondary Offence
Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri had combined for four goals in the previous 14 games, but landed a pair against the Canadiens. Lupul fired a rocket by Carey Price for the Leafs first goal midway through the first, Kadri depositing a feed from his 30-year-old teammate on a power play goal later which evened the score at three.
With Phil Kessel and the team's top line cooling some in recent days – they did account for the second Toronto goal with Tyler Bozak notching his 16th – contributions from the likes of Lupul and Kadri will be required in the final weeks of the regular season.
Toronto forwards had only seven goals in the previous six games, but accounted for all three on Saturday.
5. Ranger on the Mend
Paul Ranger was in predictable shock in the immediate aftermath, but realized he'd be okay when he was able to move his legs, hands and feet. Reversing to his left with less than five seconds remaining in the first period of a Wednesday tilt with Tampa, the 29-year-old was drilled from behind by Lightning forward Alex Killorn. He was helped off the ice on a stretcher, his teammates looking on with concern.
“I remember just feeling pain,” said Ranger, suffering a neck injury on the play. “I know that my body and my mind just went into preservation mode. All I could think was just don't move, stay straight and breathe. I just kind of breathed three in, three out for the next 3-4 hours.”
Ranger was taken to a local hospital that night, assessed and discharged. He remained off the ice for a third straight day Saturday and did not play against the Canadiens, his impending return to the line-up uncertain.
Though he received word from Killorn in the aftermath of the collision, believing that no harm was intended, the Whitby, Ontario native nonetheless hopes that hits from behind receive more attention and study for improvement.
“I think it's something that happens a lot in our game and it's dangerous,” he said. “I'm thankful I'm really strong physically and really fit and I think that really helped and probably saved me a little bit in this situation. I wouldn't want anyone else to go through that period, but especially someone who's maybe not as strong or not as heavy you could say.”
212 – Man games lost to injury for the Leafs this season, including 56 from Dave Bolland, who returned from an ankle injury against Montreal.
2-2-1 – Leafs record versus the Canadiens this season.
9:01 – Ice-time for Dave Bolland in his first game since Nov. 2.
.899 – Save percentage for James Reimer since Jonathan Bernier went out with injury.
5 – Number of 20-goal seasons for Joffrey Lupul, who scored his 20th of the year against Montreal.
8:54 – Ice-time for David Clarkson on Saturday, his lowest of the season.
11-22-4 – Leafs record this season when they allow the first goal.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 20.7% (T-4th)
Season: 78.5% (28th)
Quote of the Night
“We've been close, but close isn't good enough right now.”
- Dion Phaneuf, following the Leafs fourth straight loss.
The Leafs visit the Devils in a Sunday night affair at the Prudential Center.