TORONTO – The thud of a second straight resounding defeat was hard to miss.
A string of five unanswered goals from John Tavares and the pesky New York Islanders dug the rut of concern just a little bit deeper on Thursday evening. Faced with yet another opportunity to clinch their first playoff spot in nine years, the Maple Leafs instead offered more of the recent same, some of their worst hockey of the season.
"We're a better team than what we've displayed here," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle offered after the 5-3 defeat which saw his club outshot 38-21. "We said that when we started this process that we weren't going to stray away from the template that we created. We have to revisit that."
Concerning trends have been building. Despite being badly outplayed on Monday night with the Devils in town, the Leafs escaped with victory on the shoulders of a brilliant performance from James Reimer. On a visit to the U.S. capital just one night later, they were beaten thoroughly again, this time by an emerging Washington Capitals squad. And then on Thursday night the rut grew just ever more deeper with Tavares and company controlling the action at the Air Canada Centre.
"We didn't really have much of anything tonight," Joffrey Lupul, whose ninth goal of the season opened the scoring, observed afterward. The Leafs stretched the lead to 2-0 but it was erased in short order.
"They were beating us to pucks, they were hungry offensively, we were making awful, awful turnovers – especially when we got up 2-0 in the first, we were throwing the puck up the middle of the ice and giving them a chance to turn the momentum and have success."
Quite simply, the performance was (again) a far cry from the feisty, insistent brand which had yielded so much of their surprising success this season, including a recent string of at least one point in 13 of 14 games (9-1-4). And unlike a season-long five-game winless skid earlier this season – which contained close defeats and shootout losses – no silver lining can be found in this recent offering.
"This is adversity," said Cody Franson, who scored the second Toronto goal, adding that his team could learn from "the mistakes we made last year and learn from how we got out of it earlier in the year; take it one step at a time and dig ourselves out of this little hole we've got ourselves in.
"For whatever reason we got away from our system a little bit and we have to stop the bleeding here and get back to what made us successful."
Speaking of the template to which his team must return to earlier in the day Carlyle offered perhaps a preview of the work ahead, including a good dose of video work on Friday. "The first thing is we're a skating hockey club so we've got to skate," he said. "We've got to have that workmanlike attitude shift in shift out and when the opportunity presents itself to be physical."
The Leafs managed little of that consistently against the Islanders. Just 10 shots were directed to the goal of Evgeni Nabakov over the first two periods, their usually aggressive forecheck silenced.
With just four games to play and a three-game road trip on deck, the Leafs are in need of an immediate reversal of their recent lacklustre performance. While they still hold down the fifth seed in the East with 53 points, the gap is closing quick. The Senators sit just a point back with a game in hand and a tilt between the two in the nation's capital on Saturday. The Islanders meanwhile, closed the deficit to two with Thursday's victory. The Rangers and Jets are also still hanging around in the postseason conversation.
"We're going to fix it," Lupul concluded confidently. "We'll get back to basics and we'll fix it."
1. The Tavares factor
The Oakville kid was dominant. Tavares scored his 25th and 26th goals this season, also inking an assist in a masterful effort over his hometown team. "He's very dangerous," Carlyle said of the Islanders star before the game, "and he's taken on the responsibility that comes with being where he was chosen in the draft, he's developing into that player. Anybody who watches their hockey club or watches him play you see it night in, night out, he doesn't take many nights off it he takes any."
Carlyle stoked the trio of Lupul, Nazem Kadri, and Nik Kulemin to the early matchup with Tavares, Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes. Dion Phaneuf and Jake Gardiner assumed the duties on defence.
Such an offering was quickly thrown out.
After notching a devious helper to Boyes for New York's first goal, Tavares turned around and sniped his first marker on an odd-man rush with Moulson, Phaneuf's ill-advised pinch in the offensive zone burning the Leafs late in the opening frame. Then with less than six minutes to go in the second, Tavares jumped onto the ice and, with the Phil Kessel line buried in its own end, beat James Reimer for the second time.
It was just moments before that second goal that Carlyle juggled his assignments, the reassembled checking unit of Kulemin, Jay McClement, and Leo Komarov charged with Tavares duty. They remained in that stead for the remainder of the night, quieting the Islanders top line suitably.
2. Kadri in April
It was perhaps emblematic of his offensive efforts in April. Nazem Kadri dipped into the offensive zone before the puck disappeared off his stick for another disarming turnover. He was then replaced on the next shift by Mikhail Grabovski. Thursday marked the eighth straight game this month that Kadri has failed to find the back of the net – he has just two assists – the chances and flair for smart, productive creativity additionally decreasing. "You accept the peaks and everybody's ready to pat on the back and anoint him as this and anoint him as that – there's been enough anointing in this market, he's pretty well-greased," Carlyle said wryly before the game. "We think that Nazzie has lots of offensive upside, he's a tremendous talent, but again if he doesn't skate through the neutral ice and he stands still making plays there's challenges that come from turnovers."
3. Shot Count?
Thursday marked the ninth consecutive game that the Leafs were outshot and 33rd occasion in 44 games this season. The Leafs had just 21 shots to the Islanders 38. "We chart where the shots are coming from and that's the most important thing to us," Carlyle noted earlier in the day, the Leafs desire being shots directed from the outside. "We would like to keep our shots down below 30, as every team would, and we'd like to get over 30. There's areas in which we can improve on for sure." Carlyle noted his team's inability to control opposing forechecks of late – at issue at points against the Islanders – leading to extended shifts defending in the defensive zone. "In the games that we've been effective we've established more of a grind game, more of an effective forecheck, we've played more offensive zone time and in games we seem to be on the receiving end we have none of it," he explained.
Oddly enough, the Leafs actually have resounding marks of success when outshot this season. They are now 19-9-5 in those games.
Carl Gunnarsson missed his third consecutive game on Thursday with a suspected recurrence of a season-long hip issue and his absence was certainly felt yet again. Replacing Gunnarsson on the top pairing with Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner had another tough night in a role that's above his means at the moment, and was on the ice for two of the first three Islander goals. The 22-year-old was often outmatched by the likes of Tavares and Moulson as he was against Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on Tuesday night. "It's been tough, but he's only one member of our hockey club," Carlyle said of Gunnarsson, who could be in line to return on Saturday.
Gardiner was not and is not an ideal fit for a very difficult shutdown role alongside Phaneuf, but Carlyle has few other options. John-Michael Liles and Mike Kostka are just as ill-suited to such duties, and Carlyle is reluctant to break up the Cody Franson-Mark Fraser pairing with good reason. Fortunately for his sake, and that of the team, Gunnarsson could be back against the Senators. The 26-year-old took part in Thursday's morning skate and is "improving" according to Carlyle. His return would be help stabilize the Leafs back-end.
Quietly in the defeat, Phil Kessel added three more assists to his increasingly impressive 2013 campaign. Now tied for seventh in league scoring with 46 points, Kessel has totaled 42 of those points in the past 35 games, including all 16 goals. His 30 assists meanwhile are tied for second-most among NHL wingers, only Martin St. Louis with more (41).
Quote of the Night
"What we want to do is we want to put ourselves in a position to earn the opportunity to participate and we haven't done that yet. So all the other stuff that gives [the media] lots to talk about is something that we don't want to talk about as a coaching staff and we don't want our players focusing on it."
-Randy Carlyle on playoff talk prior to Thursday's game.
32.1: Shots against average this season, fourth highest in the NHL.
19-9-5: Record when outshot by opponent.
8-5-2: Final record versus the Atlantic division.
0: Goals for Nazem Kadri in April.
27: Points for Dion Phaneuf, tied for fifth among NHL defenders. Phaneuf scored his ninth goal of the year in defeat, tied for third at his position.
42: Points for Phil Kessel in the past 35 games.
13: Games without a goal for Clarke MacArthur.
28: Goals combined between the Leafs and Islanders in three meetings this season.
22:37: Mark Fraser.
The Leafs hit the road for a three-game trip, beginning Saturday in Ottawa.