TAMPA – Even as they draw closer to their first playoff appearance in nine years, it's clear that at the moment, the Toronto Maple Leafs are in a funk.
Outgunned and increasingly outmaneuvered by the highly potent Tampa connection of Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos on Wednesday night – their first game in four days – the Leafs dropped their third game in the past four, continuing a two-week pattern of ineffective and uncharacteristic play.
"The bottom line is we want to play the way that we know we can play and the way that gives us a chance to win every night," Dion Phaneuf told TSN.ca after the game. "And when we play that style, it's tight-checking, we don't give up a whole lot. We've got to get back to that because tonight we gave up a little bit too much for our liking."
Now ranked 1-2 in league scoring, St. Louis and Stamkos had a hand in all five Tampa goals – including the hat trick for St. Louis – the Bolts breaking free of a 2-2 tie with three straight in the final frame.
"We just seemed to get sloppy on our execution and they capitalized," said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, pleased with his team's start but increasingly frustrated by the deterioration in play.
"You've just got to make sure that as much as possible that you can force them to play in the defensive zone," he continued of St. Louis and Stamkos, "and we didn't do a very good job of that when we were out there against them."
Puck mismanagement was Carlyle's main concern, the Lightning attack posing all kinds of problems in transition, turnovers in and around the Tampa zone often the starting point. "They stretched the zone on us a couple times that gave us some problems," said Carlyle, with the first two Lightning goals - one from Stamkos, another from St. Louis - likely in mind.
While it was a far cry from the way they finished the Leafs were actually on their game early, more closely playing to the pushy, grinding template to which they've had success. And while they managed to knot the score at two late in a middle frame that included some bumps, they came completely undone in the third, Radko Gudas finding all kinds of time and space to blaze a rocket past James Reimer for the winner.
"We started well and we just didn't play the full 60," Phaneuf said. "It sounds cliché but it's very true."
Like their Northeast division counterparts in Montreal and Boston, the Leafs are stumbling to the finish line, five goals on the opponent's board in their three most recent losses. Now with just two games to go, including a final road tussle with the Panthers on Thursday, they'll need to get their game closer to the existing template if they intend to make noise in the postseason, an opportunity for home-ice advantage also still at hand.
"There's things we have to shore up for sure," Cody Franson concluded of the recent funk. "The last thing we're going to do is just hit the panic button over it. We know the mistakes we're making and it's just a matter of paying attention to it and shoring them up."
1. Tampa's lethal connection
St. Louis assumed the league lead in scoring with the hat trick against the Leafs, now with 58 points on the year, two ahead of Stamkos, his linemate and a strong contender for a second straight Rocket Richard trophy. "It all starts with managing the puck," Franson said of containing the Lightning's top line, which also includes the underrated Teddy Purcell. "Those guys, they cheat for offence and when you turn the puck over that's when they hurt you. When you're managing the puck well you keep everything in front of you, you don't give them chances to stretch you out and start making their east-west plays and you're able to hit them a little more. Tonight we didn't manage it well enough and they started going east-west on us and making some plays."
While he'll need to hold off Stamkos, who has 56 points, St. Louis, at 37 years of age, is on track to become the league's oldest scoring champ. "He's a great player," Franson noted. "There's no way around that."
Recomposing a checking line with the combination of Mikhail Grabovski, Leo Komarov and Jay McClement, Carlyle stuck the trio on St. Louis, Stamkos and Co. early, typically in tandem with the top pair of Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson. And while it seemed to slow the Bolts first unit early, gradually they found holes in the seam – with the benefit of last change – taking full advantage of whomever was on the ice.
2. Kulemin 2.0
When he arrived in Toronto in March of 2012, Randy Carlyle found a player in Nik Kulemin who had dipped into the funk of his worst NHL season, finishing with a career-low of seven goals and 28 points. This year, the 26-year-old has evolved into one of Carlyle's most trusted forwards, logging nearly 17 minutes per game – up from 15 last season – most recently as a "safety valve" alongside Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul. "I think he's playing with a lot more confidence," Carlyle said of Kulemin on Wednesday morning, "and he's having a lot more fun making a contribution." Of the changes, Carlyle noted that Kulemin was "around the puck a lot more" and "much more physical". And while the Russian winger has already matched his goal total from a year ago – this in just 46 games – Carlyle suggested that his contribution "doesn't necessarily have to be offence because we've asked him to play more of the safety valve [role] now with Kadri and Lupul."
Outside of Jay McClement, Kulemin is easily Carlyle's most trusted forward in key defensive situations, used on critical defensive zone draws and on the first unit of the penalty kill – replacing Tyler Bozak on shorthanded faceoff wins. "We think we can put him up and down the lineup," Carlyle said. Added Mikhail Grabovski of Kulemin, "He just start playing and give little things to [help the team] win. He made himself better every game and right now he's in a good spot to make his game better and better every game."
3. MacArthur's lament
Clarke MacArthur is "puzzled too" by his season-long goal drought which reached 15 games on Wednesday evening. "I don't want to over-think it because then it's just going to get worse," he said of the dry spell which has lasted since March 9 when he scored his last goal against Pittsburgh. In line with his offensive struggles the 28-year-old has averaged fewer than 14 minutes in April and began the game in Tampa on a fourth line with Joe Colborne and Matt Frattin (14 games without a goal). Notching just his second point in April on a feed to Joffrey Lupul for the Leafs final goal, MacArthur was looking to make upward strides in the final days before his first career postseason (He was a black ace in Buffalo). "It's more about trying to go north-south, make some plays and get ready for the playoff atmosphere," he said.
4. Carlyle the role model
Formerly the Calder Cup winning coach of the Norfolk Admirals, Jon Cooper became the eighth head coach in Lightning history on March 25. Cooper replaced Guy Boucher, assuming the reigns of a team that had lost its way, in some ways similar to the group Carlyle took hold of upon the ouster of Ron Wilson last season. "That is the ultimate role model to watch," Cooper said of Carlyle's success in Toronto. "...I think he went through the same thing I'm going through now, it was an education for him. He found out who he liked, who he didn't ... he took the team upon himself and look where they are. I think he's done a hell of a job." Leading the Leafs in the final 18 games last season, Carlyle said the stretch was in fact an education. "It brought familiarity with your group," he said of the initial evaluation process. "Once we made our assessment we felt that we had to set out and chart a course and we were going to do that with the group that we had. There were obviously some positives in the group that we had and some negatives we had; we were no different than a lot of teams when you do your evaluation over the course of the summer.
"Everybody wants the best players that they can possibly get and that's what we said is the best players are going to play for our team," he continued. "That was the mandate that [the players] left with; we were not going to allow contracts or terms or favourites or whatever word you want to describe, it was going to be based on merit. If you earned the opportunity to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs you were going to get that opportunity, but you had to earn it and I don't think that's going to be any different as we go forward."
5. Lineup juggling
Colborne and Frattin were mixed into Wednesday's lineup replacing the thunderous fourth line duo of Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, both of whom were nursing various (but not serious) bumps and bruises. Carlyle spoke of the need to keep his entire roster sharp with the postseason looming. "We know that when you get into these situations that you're going to have to utilize your full roster," he said prior to the game. "We're not afraid of putting people in the roster that we think are going to help us in specific situations." In addition to the two up front, Carlyle also added Mike Kostka to the lineup, the first game for the 27-year-old since April 4. Kostka led the Leafs with over 23 minutes of ice against the Lightning.
Quote of the Night
"The last thing we're going to do is just hit the panic button over it. We know the mistakes we're making and it's just a matter of paying attention to it and shoring them up."
-Cody Franson on his team's recent performance.
Quote of the Night II
"For him the most consistent thing he's got to do is continue to move his feet. And we're going to harp on him, we're going to bark at him, we're going to kick him, we're going to coddle him, I'm not going to kiss him though to keep his feet moving."
-Randy Carlyle on the ongoing development of Nazem Kadri.
3 games: Goal streak for Joffrey Lupul, who notched his 11th marker this season on Wednesday.
15: Points for Phil Kessel in 10 games in April. Kessel added his 17th goal of the year in defeat and leads the Leafs with 49 points.
5-4-1: Record in April.
3: Points for Nazem Kadri in April.
15: Games without a goal for Clarke MacArthur.
8-23: Tyler Bozak on the draw against the Lightning, including a 2-7 mark against Stamkos.
14: Games without a goal for Matt Frattin.
12-8-3: Road record.
21:08: Dion Phaneuf.
The Leafs play in Florida on Thursday night, their final road game of the regular season.