TORONTO – Harder. Better. Faster. Stronger.
St. Louis was all that and more for most of a cold March night. They dealt the sliding Leafs their sixth straight loss – seven in the past eight games – and a very loud exit from the current playoff picture. Once on firm ground toward a second straight trip to the postseason, Toronto now sits 10th in the East, trailing Columbus and Detroit for the final two wild card spots with only eight games left to play.
Skidding for nearly two weeks without even a single point they are in danger of fumbling away what seemed like a sure thing. Fear of that reality, it seems, is slowly infecting the group. "Well, certainly we're afraid of letting it slip away," Joffrey Lupul conceded after a 5-3 loss to the Blues, the Leafs winless since Mar. 13.
"The whole year we thought we were a playoff team and we still believe that now."
At this moment, however, they are not. And what once seemed unthinkable as recently as two weeks prior when they stormed through California has now become a very real reality. The Leafs may not make the playoffs and they know it. And that fear of fumbling it away is driving the nerves of a flailing group.
Head coach Randy Carlyle observed "tenseness" during the first half of Wednesday's game, one that saw St. Louis completely manhandle their sinking opponents, especially so in a dominant first frame. Big, hard, fast and strong, the best team in the West controlled possession of the puck almost without exception, peppering Jonathan Bernier with 23 shots while scoring the first two of four unanswered.
"It's like we were frozen for 30 minutes of the hockey game," Carlyle said. "We didn't pick up the puck and skate with it at all. And that's showing signs of being nervous, tense, [lacking] confidence, not wanting to make a mistake which led to more offensive zone time [for the Blues]."
Only when the score tilted at 4-1 did they start to push back and in a well-repeated theme, muster the kind of tenaciousness and enthusiasm required for winning at this time of year. Carl Gunnarsson and James van Riemsdyk scored to slice the deficit to one, but like those rallies in each of the previous five losses, the Leafs ultimately ran out of time.
Desperation was just a little too late.
"Right now it seems like when we get down then we're playing with no fear," Lupul said. "There's something to be said about being down and not having that fear anymore, but realistically we've got to play like that right from the start. It's more of a psychological thing than it is a physical thing for sure."
Whether they can overcome that imposing mental hurdle and recover in time to make the playoffs remains an increasingly uncertain question. With stumbling starts, glaring defensive breakdowns, inconsistent offence and poor goaltending, they've found ways to lose hockey games in rapid order and are feeling the pressure from it.
Losing six straight for the first time since the infamous 18-wheeler collapse in 2012, the Leafs now they sit on the outside of the playoff picture with a daunting weekend set ahead against the Flyers and Red Wings. Their fate could be determined in a matter of days.
"There's reason for concern, but it's not completely time to panic," Lupul said. "We're still right there. We've got a game Friday, we play Detroit [on] Saturday, you win those two games and all of a sudden things look a lot different."
1. Bernier's Back
Even Bernier – making his first start since Mar. 13 – couldn't rescue the Leafs from the Blues. And he tried. The 25-year-old was spectacular early on, turning away the first 20 St. Louis shots in a one-sided opening frame. He eventually ceded four goals on 48 shots. It was just his third loss in regulation when facing 40 shots or more (8-3-2).
Bernier had missed the previous five games with a groin injury, rushing back to stabilize the Leafs wobbling crease. "Lot of work, but felt okay," he said afterward.
Stretching constantly, in between whistles and during TV timeouts, Bernier was seemingly shy of 100 per cent, but surely felt the need to return with his team's chances of reaching the postseason flailing. Asked if he rushed back from the injury, Bernier said, "You always want to be back as soon as possible."
"It was a little sore obviously, but I was just trying to get it loose a little bit in between whistles and timeouts."
2/3. Ready to Start?
Scoring first didn't help the Leafs much on this night. They scored the first goal for the first time in eight games with Lupul tucking a Nazem Kadri pass beyond Ryan Miller on a power-play, but it was down-hill from there.
Already owning possession for much of the period to that point, the Blues tied the proceedings at one when T.J. Oshie squeezed a rebound through the pads of Bernier. They went in front for good on the first of three from David Backes on a power-play, Dion Phaneuf failing to clear the puck adequately.
St. Louis had 23 shots for the period, the most Toronto has allowed in any one period this season. "That's a heck of a hockey team over there," van Riemsdyk said. "The way they play, lines 1-4, [defence] pairings 1-3, there's not much of a falloff. They kept coming. That's no excuse for us. We have to find a way to get off to a better start."
Strong and sturdy, the Blues cycled and cycled and cycled without giving the Leafs even a taste of the puck. "We couldn't break their cycle," Lupul said. "We couldn't get the puck."
It was the kind of grinding performance Carlyle would like to see more from his team in Toronto.
"They did a lot of things that we're trying to convince our hockey club to do as far as hanging onto the puck a little bit more," he said. "We understand we're not as big and strong and as physical as some of those teams that are able to do that, but that's more of the style this time of year – if you watch the games – that's what's being played."
The Leafs are now 8-20-4 when they trail after the opening period.
"Again we played 30 minutes of hockey tonight and showed that we can play, but where's the 60 minutes?" Carlyle said. "We cannot afford to not start the way we've been starting. We have to have more of an effort or consistent, confident start than we've had in these games."
Phaneuf played fewer than 21 minutes and had what may have been his worst game of the season. The Toronto captain was on the ice and largely responsible for three of the first four St. Louis goals, having what Carlyle described as a "rough night".
The 28-year-old made his first error late in the first, fumbling away an opportunity to clear the puck on a penalty kill, the Blues regrouping to score the first of three from Backes. Then early in the middle frame Phaneuf lost a puck battle with Alex Steen in the offensive zone. Lagging to get back defensively, he was beaten down the ice by Backes, the Blues captain eluding Bernier for the third St. Louis marker. About 10 minutes after that it was Steen muscling Phaneuf to the ice just outside Bernier's crease, shaking free to whistle a backhand just under the bar for a 4-1 lead.
Phaneuf was unavailable to media after the game.
5. Six-Game Skid
Losing a bunch of close games, prior to Wednesday night, Lupul believed the Leafs had actually played better at points in their slide than in many victories this season.
"Absolutely," said Lupul before the loss to St. Louis. "We track scoring chances – our team does – and we're out-chancing teams every night. You can look at that and say we're doing some things right, but it's the time of the year that that doesn't really matter anymore, it's all about wins. You've got to translate that into getting more wins."
The 30-year-old observed that the margin for winning and losing at this time of year is "really close". "It's been a topic of discussion in here," he said. "We're generating chances. We're not giving up near as many as we have, but we're coming out on the wrong side of the game so that doesn't really matter.
"And on the flip side when we were winning games and getting out-chanced we were saying the same thing in here, like 'come on, what are we doing?' But now it's the time of the year that it doesn't really matter how you get the job done it just needs to get done."
1-7-0 – Leafs record in the past eight games.
23 – Shots allowed by the Leafs in the opening period Wednesday, the most of any period this season.
8 – Fights for David Clarkson this season. Pointless now in 23 of the past 25 games, Clarkson fought Brendan Morrow in the second period.
7-23 – Tyler Bozak in the faceoff circle against the Blues, hammered by the combination of Steen and Vladimir Sobotka.
1 – Six-game losing streak for the Leafs this season.
2 – Goals for James van Riemsdyk in the past 12 games, van Riemsdyk notching his 28th this season in defeat.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 21% (3rd)
Season: 78.5% (28th)
Quote of the Night
"There's reason for concern, but it's not completely time to panic."
-Joffrey Lupul, following the Leafs sixth consecutive loss.
The Leafs travel to Philadelphia on Friday to meet the Flyers before hosting the Red Wings at home on Saturday.