TORONTO – The sore spot has emerged to the forefront with the trade deadline fast approaching.
On display again in the opening four minutes of a 4-2 loss to the Capitals on Saturday night – the eighth loss in nine games for the Leafs – was a shaky start between the pipes for the Leafs, James Reimer yielding two goals on the first four shots.
“The two goals early in the game were stoppable chances,” said Ron Wilson succinctly after the game. “We dug a hole because of that. And we're kind of always waiting now for something bad to happen on the goal-line and we've got to find a way to get over that.”
Only 32 seconds had elapsed on the clock before Reimer was beaten on a wraparound by Marcus Johannson, Alexander Semin sneaking a shot five-hole behind the beleaguered 23-year-old minutes later. The Capitals went on to add two more in the middle frame, a late Leaf comeback ultimately falling short.
“When not even really scoring chances are in the net, ‘boom you're down 2-0', you're seeing an uphill battle the rest of the night,” said Wilson.
The Leafs have just one win since February 7 (1-7-1), the duo of Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson combining for an ineffective .875 save percentage (35 goals on 281 shots) in that stretch. Sinkable goals – such as the pair on Saturday – have become part of the recent norm. Leafs President and General Manager Brian Burke addressed the concern on TSN 1050 earlier in the week, noting his intent to explore the trade market as it pertained to goaltenders before the February 27 deadline.
Floundering with 20 games left, the void now has to be considered near-must for improvement if postseason aspirations are to be chased and ultimately reached. Currently sitting 10th in the Eastern Conference with 65 points, the Leafs trail the Jets by three for the eighth and final playoff spot.
“We've got to figure out a way to get a save here and there and I think we'll be in good shape,” concluded Wilson when the prospect of improvement was raised. “We were in good shape before and in the last two weeks we've had trouble keeping the puck out of our net.”
1. Dion Phaneuf delivered a passionate address following the loss, leadership certainly enduring a test in midst of a tumultuous patch. “We're going to get out of this together,” said Phaneuf forcefully. “We're still confident as a group. And right now we're going to keep our heads up and go back to work and get out of this together because no one's going to get us out, no one's going to help us but the guys that are playing in this room. It's not a time to sit here and feel sorry for ourselves. We're going to come out of it. We're going to hold our heads high and we're going to push our way through this rough patch because it's definitely a hole we've put ourselves in at a crucial time of the year, but we're still in the race and there's lot of hockey to be played.”
2. Instability between the pipes aside, Saturday marked the fourth time in six games that the Leafs have fallen behind 2-0 in the opening period. “We're not playing with enough urgency right off the bat, especially in our building,” said Phaneuf. “There's no reason for it and there's no excuse for it…We talked about it. We want to start better and they come out and they score the first shift, it puts you right behind the eight-ball early.”
3. Asked before the game if his team was growing tight amidst a series of losses and the lingering deadline, Wilson responded with a message similar to the one presented in his post-game remarks. “Some of that comes [because] we haven't had consistent goaltending so I think a lot of times you get a little tentative,” he said. “We've scored a lot when we've had good goaltending and then if it goes south a little bit we're tentative.” The Leafs have scored just 17 goals in the last nine games (1.89 per game), down considerably from January when they posted 37 goals in 12 games (3.08), backed by sturdy netminding from Gustavsson.
4. Clear-cut in his assessment, Phaneuf related growing tension in the dressing room to uncertainty surrounding the deadline. “Definitely tight,” he said. “It is a tough time of year for guys playing in a big market like this and hearing stuff day in and day out, but it's part of the business…There's no time to worry about the stuff that out's of your control. We've got to win hockey games.”
5. Now without a goal in 12 consecutive games – his longest drought this season – Mikhail Grabovski is one player likely to be pleased to see the deadline come and go, despite earlier assertions that trade and contract talk (he's an unrestricted free agent following the season) had little effect on his performance. Clarke MacArthur was in a similar boat to Grabovski at the deadline last year, heading into restricted free agency the following summer. “Once the trade deadline hit last year they didn't have to sign me right then because they still had me for another year whereas his is sign or they bite the bullet,” MacArthur told TSN.ca. “I remember I was in Buffalo, they bit the bullet with [Brian] Campbell, [Danny] Briere and [Chris] Drury one year…Sometimes you have to bite the bullet to make the playoffs…That's a tough business thing for the player and the team.” Added MacArthur, "I don't know what's going to happen there. He's such a good player for the team. You just hope they can work it out together because it's a guy you don't want to lose."
MacArthur has just one goal in the last nine games…Matt Frattin was recalled before the game, eventually joining MacArthur and Grabovski on the second line. Frattin fired two shots on goal in 16 minutes…Phil Kessel had a five-game point streak snapped in the loss…Jake Gardiner led the Leafs again in ice-time with 26:31…Colby Armstrong scored his first goal of the season…Tim Connolly added his third in the last five games...The Leafs have given up the first goal in seven of the past eight games...The Leaf powerplay finished 0-4 in the loss, now 6-58 in the last 20 games (10%).