TORONTO - The Leafs danced into the Bell Centre two and a half weeks ago and stomped all over Montreal in their home rink. On Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre, the Canadiens returned the favour.
"We were flat, flat, flat, flat," Randy Carlyle said with frustrated emphasis, following a 5-2 loss for the Leafs, which snapped a three-game streak at home. "We looked like at times we were playing in boots and they were playing on skates … I guess it's similar to the game they played against us the last time in Montreal; they probably felt the same way about their team that night as we feel about ours right now."
The rink was tilted really from puck drop. Stuck in neutral or even park, the Leafs rarely (if ever) found the necessary gear to engage with the current best team in the Eastern Conference, a team they'd beaten in two previous meetings, including a 6-0 shellacking on the road earlier this month. They were beaten to loose pucks, lost battles in every which way, and stalled for most of the night - the first 30 minutes especially - as far as establishing anything that resembled an offensive attack.
The Canadiens got their breaks - a redirection here, a ricochet there and a mismanaged faceoff win on the game-winner from Brendan Gallagher - but on this night they deserved every one. If not for the effort of Ben Scrivens through the opening 40 minutes - the game was tied at two despite Montreal outshooting Toronto 28-12 - the Leafs would not have even sniffed an opportunity at two points. "Our game caught up to us," Dion Phaneuf acknowledged afterward.
With another game on tap against the Islanders on Thursday evening, Carlyle said afterward that he considered offering his team an optional at Wednesday's morning skate. He ultimately decided against it. "Can you imagine if we would've had an optional [skate] and had this performance they'd never see another one for the rest of my coaching tenure," he said, managing a grin.
"We haven't had many games like this so it surprises us," he concluded. "I don't think there's any way to paint it pretty."
1. Inconsistency lurking
Carlyle was perhaps prescient before the game when he noted the required performance of his team entering a clash against the league's hottest team. "We have to be prepared to play to a level that we haven't probably played in the last little while, maybe since the last time we played them," he said. Since pumping the Canadiens in Montreal on February 9, the Leafs have generally been inconsistent, strong effort here, wobbly effort there. They dropped to 5-4-0 since that 6-0 decision, the Habs marching along at 7-0-2. Asked what his club had done to establish success previously, Carlyle noted one prominent trait. "We just established a forechecking game," he said. "And that's really what our hockey club [is about]. If we're not in on the puck and we're not able to fore-check then we're playing a lot of the game in the neutral ice and defending. We have to establish that we're going to play a good portion of the game in the offensive zone." Evidence of that was most obvious in the first frame on Wednesday, nearly all of the action spent in the Toronto zone. The Leafs managed just four weak shots in those 20 minutes, one of which could hardly be considered a shot at all, Fraser McLaren's opening goal coming off the stick of Travis Moen. The goal notably began with Mike Brown's effort on, you guessed it, the forecheck.
2. Top line off the mark
Tasked with squaring off against the line of David Deshairnais, Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher, the Leafs top unit of Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk was far off its mark against the Canadiens. The line was on the ice for four of the five Montreal goals, including the winner from Gallagher. "I think our line in particular had a pretty rough game," Bozak acknowledged of the performance. "We didn't generate much at all." Bozak and Kessel notably finished with season-lows in ice-time while van Riemsdyk failed to land a shot on goal for the first time all season. Kessel, interestingly enough, has yet to score at the ACC this season, totaling just four assists in nine games.
3. Nature of a rivalry
Wednesday was the third matchup of the year between the Leafs and Canadiens, the rivalry appearing to re-ignite itself with the success of both organizations so far this year. "You want to compete and win against every team," Mark Fraser said, "but there's some teams, because of the jersey you wear, you naturally learn to hate them. I first got a taste of that when I was in New Jersey; I naturally grew to hate the Rangers. It was just how you were supposed to feel [it] being a cross-river rivalry. Now it's the same thing, Montreal and Toronto goes decades back."
"Any game between Toronto and Montreal is always pretty heated and in the shortened season battling for those two points seem like they're much more important," Mike Kostka added. "I think it doesn't take quite as much to get it going when it's Toronto and Montreal. Definitely as of late it's been pretty intense."
While he's juggled around his first and second pairings at times so far, Carlyle has been more or less locked in with the duo of Mark Fraser and Cody Franson. They played their 16th consecutive game together against the Canadiens, on the ice for both Toronto goals. "I just think we've been able to identify our responsibilities and we're just trying to keep it simple right now," said Fraser, who is averaging about 14 minutes this month and logged a season-high 19:38 against Montreal. "[Franson's] a fantastic puck-mover, big body to play with, I've really enjoyed it. But whoever we're matched against we've just done a good job I think of minimizing zone-time against and therefore being able to contribute offensively and succeed in the offensive side of the ice." Franson notched his 11th assist of the year on Clarke MacArthur's sixth this season and continues to lead all Leaf defenders with 12 points, nine of which have come at even-strength.
5. Reimer's return
James Reimer was activated off injured reserve on Wednesday afternoon, ending a six-game stint on the shelf. Perhaps the most difficult adjustment for the 24-year-old upon his actual return to the net - he served as the back-up against Montreal and could start against the Islanders on Thursday - is dealing with the brace he is required to wear on his left knee. While unquestionably good for the stability of the knee, the brace is not only uncomfortable (digging into the leg), but awkward for the movements of a goaltender. Keeping the device - and the knee itself - back of mind will be crucial in attempts to regain the form which saw him post a .929 save percentage through 10 games.
Quote of the Night
"We were flat, flat, flat, flat. We looked like at times we were playing our boots and they were playing on skates."
-Randy Carlyle, on his team's performance.
Quote of the Night II
"Can you imagine if we would've had an optional [skate] and had this performance they'd never see another one for the rest of my coaching tenure. And I told them that."
-Carlyle, again on his team's performance.
0: Goals for Phil Kessel in Toronto this season.
4-5-0: Leafs record at home.
1: Number of power-plays for the Leafs on Wednesday night.
3: Times this season the Leafs have allowed 40-plus shots.
8th: Leafs goaltending rank entering Wednesday's action (according to goals against average).
15:40 - Kessel, a season-low.
14:13 - Bozak, a season-low.
Minute Watch II
14:55 - Colton Orr, a career-high.
The Leafs make a quick one-day trip to Long Island for a Thursday showdown with the Islanders.