TORONTO - Whatever momentum they built up before the 18-day Olympic break is suddenly gone.
Three straight losses have quieted the Maple Leafs - winners of 11 of 14 before the stoppage - who dropped a 2-1 decision to Columbus at the ACC on Monday night, their third loss in as many games to the Blue Jackets this season. Alongside overtime defeats in Long Island and Montreal, the interim trends in Toronto are subtly veering in the wrong direction, though they still have ownership of the first wild card position in the East.
"The three losses hurt because we had points available to us on the road," head coach Randy Carlyle said, referring to overtime defeats against the Islanders and Canadiens. "That's the hard part is when you lose two overtime games on the road and we had a one-goal lead in both games. That kicks you. That doesn't feel very good."
The most recent case saw his team start strong, stall midway through and eventually push back with a charge that was ultimately too late.
"I think part of it is somewhat of an Olympic hangover," said James Reimer, making a rare start in place of Jonathan Bernier. "The last three games it's been anyone's game, it's been a one-goal game and two of them have gone into overtime. I think we're right there; we're just missing it by a little bit. All three games could've been W's for us so I don't think it's anything to worry about."
The Leafs started the evening strongly with a flurry of opportunities and pair of power-plays, but failed to get anything beyond the reach of Sergei Bobrovsky, nor the multiple bodies that stood at his defence.
Phil Kessel snuck one shot through the pads, but it spun just above the goal-line before Bobrovsky rushed it to cover.
The home foot came off the gas in the middle period with Columbus scoring twice in less than three minutes. The Leafs turned pucks over, lost battles and wandered around hopelessly in the defensive zone. They failed to even record a shot before Dalton Prout scored the game's first goal.
Cody Franson labeled it a "mediocre" 20 minutes.
"We tried to get cute with the puck and turned it over too many times," he said. "When you play a team that has that type of forechecking style and transition ability it's not what you want to do ideally."
"I think that was more of a mental lapse than anything because we just started wandering
around," Carlyle said. "For the first period we had lots of life, we were on our toes and jumping to pucks and we were winning our battles. In the second we just started to stall in the neutral ice."
A late third period rally yielded a goal from Mason Raymond, but nothing more as the Blue Jackets swept the season series from their new Eastern Conference counterpart, outscoring them 13-3 in the process.
The Toronto dressing room was hardly in a state of panic afterward.
Though dismayed with their performance against a mediocre Islanders squad last week, they were generally pleased with their effort in Montreal over the weekend - outside of penalty trouble and another lost third period lead - and pointed to the loss to Columbus as an incomplete effort, but not one that should cause alarm.
They can't hide from points left on the table, however, especially against those they're either chasing (Canadiens) or those chasing them (Blue Jackets) and a difficult schedule ahead. Just behind the Leafs (72 points) in the standings are the likes of Detroit (68), Washington (68) and these very Blue Jackets (67), all with games in hand and opportunity to narrow the gap further.
The alarm should not be sounded with three straight losses, but some degree of caution should be taken by those wearing the blue and white.
"We're fine," said Joffrey Lupul afterward. "We're certainly not losing perspective, but we're not happy about losing two points to a team below us in the standings."
1. Rare Start
James Reimer hadn't made a start for the Leafs since Jan. 25, a long stretch of 37 days that saw Jonathan Bernier gripping tight on the starting job right into the 18-day Olympic break. "Besides an injury I don't know if I've ever had this much time in between starts," Reimer said.
In spite of the long layoff, the 25-year-old looked sharp, stopping 31 of the 33 shots peppered by Columbus, including a Nick Foligno breakaway in the opening five minutes.
"There was a little rust there," said Reimer, "but honestly I felt pretty good. I felt like I battled as hard as I could and tried to fight to see the puck and it's unfortunate we came up a little short tonight."
The two that passed could hardly be pinned his way. The first from Prout sailed through a maze of traffic from the point, the latter from Artem Anisimov coming by way of a laser back-door point pass from Nikita Nikitin.
"I don't think you can point to the goaltending as a deficiency, that's for sure," said Carlyle. "He did his part to give us a chance."
2. Rare Night off the Scoresheet
Kessel missed his 34th goal of the year by mere inches. The 26-year-old had a rare night off the scoresheet, finishing with two shots in just over 23 minutes of ice. It was just the third time in the past 18 games that the scorching Kessel failed to register a point.
Indicative of his value, the Leafs dropped to 4-17-2 this season on such nights, a rarity these days for sure.
3. Power-play Life
Unhappy with the state of his club's special teams, Carlyle directed that the near-entirety of Sunday's practice be spent on the matter. Much of the focus a day before the game against Columbus centered on a power-play that was suddenly missing much of its pep.
"We stood around," he said of the man advantage in losses to New York and Montreal. "And other teams have made adjustments to our break-out and we haven't reacted to what we normally would do in situations. Obviously other coaches in the league do pre-scout. They do work to devise plans against what you do."
Though they failed to score in two attempts on this night - now 0-13 in the past six games - they did manage some signs of life, including a good opportunity for Morgan Rielly in the first frame.
"At least today our power-play created some momentum for us whereas in the past couple games it seemed like it'd been a bit of a momentum killer," said Lupul.
The Leafs own the league's fifth-best power-play this season with much of that success coming on home ice – they sit second in the NHL at 26.5 per cent. Considering their ineffectiveness on the penalty kill it's an area they'll want to right soon.
4. Trade Deadline
Dave Nonis made a minor move at the trade deadline last season, adding Ryan O'Byrne from Colorado for a fourth round draft pick. The Leafs general manager and his management team have essentially shunned the idea of adding another such rental this time around.
Unlike in years' past there's not much in the way of frenzy surrounding the club heading into the Mar. 5 deadline, but in Carlyle's eyes - traded himself once at the deadline - it remains a distraction for players.
"The trade deadline's always a factor in any hockey player's life," said Carlyle, traded to Winnipeg from Pittsburgh for a first round pick on Mar. 5th, 1984.
"Having played for a number of years and lived and died in one. It was one of those situations that you remember. It's not a lot of fun being a player at this time of year. In today's Twitter world and blogging and that, there's a lot more rumours floating around so it's obviously a lot more to it than when I was moved in '84. I don't think they had Twitter then did they?"
5. Rare Home Ice Defeat
Before falling Monday to the Blue Jackets the Leafs hadn't lost in Toronto since Jan. 7, a 5-3 defeat that night to the pesky New York Islanders. They had reeled off seven consecutive wins at home for the first time since the 2006-07 season,
13-3 - Goal differential between Leafs and Blue Jackets this season, favouring Columbus.
4-17-2 - Leafs record this season when Phil Kessel fails to record a point.
0-13 - Toronto power-play in the past six games.
24:46 - Ice-time for James van Riemsdyk versus Columbus, leading the team.
21-11-1 - Leafs record at home this season.
2:54 - Amount of time it took the Blue Jackets to score twice in the second period on Monday.
37 - Days between starts for James Reimer.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 21.2% (5th)
Season: 77.6% (28th)
Quote of the Night
"In today's Twitter world and blogging and that, there's a lot more rumours floating around so [there's] obviously a lot more to it than when I was moved in '84. I don't think they had Twitter then did they?"
-Randy Carlyle, speaking about Wednesday's trade deadline.
The Leafs head to the Big Apple for a trade deadline day clash with the Rangers.