UNIONDALE, N.Y. – Randy Carlyle could handle and might even expect some rustiness for 20 minutes or so after an 18-day Olympic break, but not for the entirety of what proved a dud for the Maple Leafs on Thursday in Long Island.
"We gave them three goals," said Carlyle, still steaming after a 5-4 overtime loss to the Islanders. "You can't win in the NHL giving three goals. Gifts. Total gifts."
This was not the way Carlyle imagined his team starting the final lap of a long race to the playoffs – a blistering stretch featuring 21 more games in a hectic 44 days – but that's what he got, a sloppy, uninspired performance opposite a team that had lost seven of its previous eight games and was without its best player, John Tavares.
Lacking the zip of their pre-Olympic pace – which included wins in 11 of 14 games – the Leafs managed to give away two shorthanded goals in a span of 48 seconds on the same two-minute power play before dropping a pair of third period leads.
They lost the undeserved extra point in overtime when James van Riemsdyk could not corral a bouncing puck in the slot, essentially handing it to incoming Islander defender Lubomir Visnovsky, who snuck one through Jonathan Bernier.
"I think mentally we looked like we were going to out-skill the hockey club we played against and they had a different attitude. They tried to grind it with us," said Carlyle afterward. "We tried to out-skill a hockey club tonight."
Rust was to be expected after the two-plus week Olympic break, but not to the degree that it lingered on this night against a vastly inferior opponent. Two times in the third period did the Leafs vault in front – on goals from Dion Phaneuf and Joffrey Lupul – only to be jilted twice for that lead by Anders Lee, who scored twice in his first NHL game.
Lee tapped in his first on a New York power-play, evading Phaneuf and Bernier on the fourth and final game-tying goal late in regulation.
"You can expect it for a period," Carlyle said of rust, "but I think when you get down to the third period and you're up in a hockey game you'd expect to be able to grind it out, tighten it up and finish the team off.
"We were lucky to get a point."
Perhaps the effort will offer an early warning to a club itching for a second consecutive spring of playoff hockey. While still comfortable as the first wild card in the East with 71 points that comfort has the potential – however unlikely at this point – to disappear if the Leafs were to catch a fever of bad hockey down the stretch. And with rivals in Montreal and Tampa Bay still there to be caught and Detroit just a smidge behind, heavy incentive remains to lay the foot on the pedal with just over a month left to play.
"We know that we left a point here," said Phaneuf. "That's something we have to recognize and learn from."
1. Stretch Drive Mentality
It was a race to the 2008-09 postseason and Tim Gleason and the Carolina Hurricanes were in a desperate hunt to claim one of the final spots in the East. Winning 13 of their final 18 games they snuck in, landed the sixth seed and proceeded to march all the way to the conference finals.
"Thinking back I think that's what it was," Gleason told the Leaf Report. "You play as hard as you can because you needed those two points every night."
Though his current team sits firm in a playoff position at the moment, Gleason hopes they latch onto his former club's sense of nightly desperation. Thursday was in no way, shape or form a good start.
"It's like a new season, a new beginning and you know you've got to come and play and get the wins when you can," said the 31-year-old. "...you've got to push when everyone else is pushing and you have to push harder than everybody else."
The Olympic break could not have come at more inopportune time for the Leafs, who entered the stoppage on a scorching run that saw them emerge with points in 12 of 14 games (11-2-1). Gleason too was settling into a groove in Toronto after eight seasons in Carolina.
"It's interesting because everybody is anxious for the break because it's good to have a break, but you think in the back of your mind you don't want it to end because it was going in the right direction," he said. "Now I think it's just more of a mental thing, knowing where we left off and what we have to do to keep the pace and pick up points when we can."
2. Lacking Defence
In winning 11 of those 14 games before the break, the Leafs scored and scored quite a bit – averaging 3.64 goals per game, a number that would easily lead the league if somehow sustained. And yet in that same stretch, Toronto also gave up nearly three goals per game itself and still ranks as one of the NHL's worst defensive clubs (all of this with terrific goaltending from Bernier).
Team defence remains a sore spot for the Leafs and a worrying concern ahead of the playoffs when the hockey tends to tighten with goals ever the harder to come by.
"We've talked so much about defence and we haven't really applied ourselves as a team in that area," said Carlyle on Thursday morning, "and that's one of the things that we've stated from the beginning of the season that we wanted to be stingier on the defensive side of it."
No team allows more shots nightly than do the Leafs and only five teams have yielded more goals, none of them currently in a playoff position. The Islanders managed five on this night, playing without their top centre, Tavares, and their second-best centre, Frans Nielsen.
"We've talked about it so many times about our goaltenders having to be taxed in too many situations," Carlyle said. "We'd like to be able to say that it's a new season for us, we're starting over. The defensive aspect of it has to be part of it. But it takes goals to score in the league too. We just don't want to give up too many of the quality scoring chances..."
3. Bernier Workload
Only one goaltender in the NHL has faced more shots this season than Bernier and that's Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes. Of course, Smith has also started 10 more games than the 25-year-old, who made his 39th start of the season at Nassau Coliseum on Thursday.
Bernier faced 35 shots and allowed five goals, ending a run of 12 consecutive starts yielding three or fewer. "I thought my rebound control wasn't great tonight and I've got to make more saves," he said afterward. "Five goals, it's not a good night, but at the same time we got a point and we've got to move on."
Shining in his first go-around as an NHL no. 1, the stretch drive will prove an interesting testing ground for Bernier. He has not played this many games in a season since 2009-10 when he was still in the American League with Manchester.
4. No Olympic Letdown?
Back in 2010 and then the bench boss in Anaheim, Carlyle had a slew of players return from the Olympics in Vancouver emotionally spent and missing the gas required to carry the Ducks as per usual. But on Thursday morning, Carlyle raised the belief that Sochi Olympians Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Nik Kulemin could actually have a leg up on their teammates having played the past few weeks.
And he turned out to be fairly prescient, at least for a game. van Riemsdyk had a hand in three of the four Toronto goals, matching a career-high with three assists, while Kessel chipped in with his 32nd goal of the year, also adding a helper to what has been a scorching 2014. The 26-year-old is now tied for second in league scoring with 67 points, 30 of which have come in the New Year.
"It's not too hard to get back into it," van Riemsdyk said prior to the game. "Obviously we know what's at stake. All my attention is here on the Maple Leafs. The Olympics is done and over with. It's all about the rest of the season here and what we have to accomplish here."
5. Olympic Experience
An Olympian with the American squad for the first time, the 24-year-old van Riemsdyk said the experience was memorable despite a disappointing finish which saw the U.S. bounced by Canada in the semifinals and then trounced in the bronze medal game by Finland.
"Obviously the ending wasn't necessarily how we wanted it go which is unfortunate, but in a tournament like that where it's single elimination that's how it goes sometimes unfortunately. As far as the whole Olympic experience I thought it was pretty cool. It almost reminded me of being back in college again as far as just even the dorms and being at the cafeteria with all the other athletes."
1479 – Shots faced by Jonathan Bernier this season, second most in the NHL.
67 – Points this season for Phil Kessel, now tied for second in league scoring.
29 – Points for Kessel in the past 16 games.
12 – Goals for Kessel in that same 16-game stretch.
2 – Shorthanded goals scored by the Islanders in 48 seconds of the same Toronto power-play on Thursday.
3.67 – Goals per game for the Leafs since Jan. 12.
3 – Goals against per game for the Leafs this season.
3 – Assists by James van Riemsdyk against New York, matching a career-high.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 21.8 per cent (4th)
Season: 77.9 per cent (29th)
Quote of the Night
"Gifts. I've got no other word to describe the goals that we gave up."
-Randy Carlyle, following the overtime loss to the Islanders.
The Leafs head to Montreal for a Saturday showdown with the Canadiens.