TORONTO – Dion Phaneuf spoke of the importance of what would be the final game before his team participated in its first playoff in nine years.
"You want to go in feeling good about your game, about the way your team's playing," Phaneuf said, hours before a season finale with Montreal.
Such a feeling is unlikely to materialize after Saturday evening. The Leafs continued their stumble into the postseason, losing for the fourth time in the past six games, whipped at their own game by the Canadiens in a potential playoff preview.
"I'm scratching my head," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said of an almost two-faced 4-1 loss by his struggling hockey club.
Starting sturdy in a feisty opening frame, the Toronto effort was mysteriously replaced by two wobbly periods of ineffectiveness – low-lighted by a single-shot effort in the second – during which they were thumped both physically and skillfully by a scrappy Montreal opponent.
The Canadiens veered in front early in the middle period, an Andrei Markov point shot winding its way through traffic and in behind James Reimer – the first of two in the period for the visitors – who was pulled early in the third after the fourth Montreal goal from Tomas Plekanec sailed past his right shoulder.
"We started to lack the compete that was necessary to win some battles along the wall, we started turning the puck over and it just seemed like it deteriorated from there," Carlyle said of his team's effort after the first, noting a power-play that misfired in three second period opportunities. "For whatever reason it was like we went brain-dead and our execution level went way down."
The real glue to the Leafs game is an aggressive, in-your-face forecheck that punishes with speed, brute physicality and all-out effort, but as has been the case in recent weeks, such an element reared its head only in spurts against Montreal, hardly at all matter of fact after the first.
"We just got away from the things that made us successful," said Jay McClement soberly. "We turned some pucks over, we didn't get a lot of offensive zone time. They kind of did to us what was in our game-plan. They just kept putting it deep and we ended up chasing the game and playing a lot in our end."
Their loss and the Ottawa Senators defeat sealed the Leafs fate as the fifth seed in the East, their first round opponent – one of Montreal or Boston – still to be decided. Regardless, if they expect to make any noise in their first playoff since 2004, a serious reversal in recent course is needed.
"We're going to have to obviously figure it out here going forward," James van Riemsdyk concluded after the loss. "You can't have off-nights or even off-periods if you want to be successful in the playoffs."
1. Reimer's off-night
The 25-year-old yielded four goals on 23 shots, his worst save percentage (.826) for any game this season, but also the third instance in the past five starts that he's allowed at least four goals. "I don't think he was as sharp as he's been, that's for sure," Carlyle said of Reimer, who had beaten Montreal in two previous meetings this season. "[But] he's been outstanding for hockey club so it's hard to cast anything in that direction." In addition to the two goals listed above, Reimer was also beaten on a pair of Montreal drives to the net, one from Lars Eller, who eluded Cody Franson to the crease, another from Brendan Gallagher, who made the most of a Phil Kessel offensive zone turnover. "It sucks whenever you don't play as well as you can, but I don't think there's any reason to be down," said Reimer, who was making his third start in the past four days. "You sometimes have games where you're not your sharpest and that happens. I'm not going to be too low about it … It sucks and you hate it, but there was positives and we move on."
2. Two-week stumble
The funk began in the middle of April, punctuated in a 2-0 victory over the Devils, one they managed only due to the superb efforts of Reimer, who was perfect with a 31-save shutout. The Leafs went on to drop the next two games, outscored 10-4 by the Capitals and Islanders. They managed to capture another game on the shoulders of Reimer in the nation's capital a couple days later, outshot 50-22 in a victory that clinched a long-awaited playoff berth. On a Florida swing to two of the worst teams in the conference, they delivered an uninspiring performance in Tampa – beaten 5-2 – following that up with an uneven 4-0 shutout over the league-worst Panthers. Then there was Saturday's misfire against Montreal. "It's a brand new season now," van Riemsdyk said. "Whatever you've done in the past realistically doesn't matter anymore. We know going forward it's a fresh start for everyone and we're excited for that."
Dips and dives are to be expected in any regular season, but for the Leafs, mired in unquestionably their worst sustained stretch of hockey this season, the funk could not come at a worse time. "Even if we would've won 10-0 when the game's over it really doesn't mean anything now," Reimer added. "It's a new season and we're confident in what we can do and we're confident in how we can play. That hasn't changed because we didn't play our best for two periods."
3. Playoff matchups
It will be either the Canadiens or Bruins for the Leafs this postseason, the final determination coming Sunday evening when Boston takes on Ottawa in the regular season finale. A Bruins loss would signal a Boston-Toronto first round series, a victory ensuring the highly-anticipated Montreal-Toronto fiery matchup. "I probably will watch it," said Carlyle with a grin. "Obviously it has an impact on what we're going to do." According to Carlyle, the league will have a conference call with playoff teams on Sunday afternoon, an offering of the schedule scenarios for each potential Toronto opponent.
Based on regular season performance – Saturday notwithstanding – the Canadiens would seemingly pose a slightly more encouraging first round matchup. The Leafs won three of five meetings with Montreal this season, outscoring their rivals by a 16-11 margin. Boston meanwhile proved menacing, the Bruins defeating the Leafs in three of four matchups.
4. Fourth line toughness in the second season
Montreal began Saturday's game with the pugilistic trio of Brandon Prust, Ryan White and Travis Moen, perhaps an early message from Canadiens coach Michel Therrien that his team would not be pushed around, as it had been in meetings past. Carlyle responded with some moxie of his own, shuffling out his bullying fourth unit of Colton Orr, Frazer McLaren and Jay McClement. Just a day earlier, the Leafs coach explained his thought process for dressing fourth line brutality in the postseason. "We think that there's a place for toughness in our lineup," he said, following practice on Friday. "But toughness is in a different form at times in the playoffs. To say that they're going to be in the lineup on a day-to-day basis, I'm not going to say anybody's going to be in the lineup on a day-to-day basis. I think that they've earned an opportunity to play for our hockey club. They've been great teammates, they've defended the honour and defended themselves at times and we have no issue putting any one of those players in our lineup."
5. Kostka's late rise
Mike Kostka had fallen out of the Leafs defensive rotation for a stretch of two-plus weeks earlier this month, but after being re-inserted back in the lineup in Tampa earlier this week Kostka made a positive impression. "It's always a good sign when you can go to your people that haven't been playing," Carlyle said of Kostka, who played over 20 minutes for the third straight game against Montreal. "He's worked extremely hard, he fit into our lineup and he did an excellent job."
The addition of Ryan O'Byrne at the trade deadline pushed the 27-year-old to the press box for a couple weeks, but after a stretch of eight games, Carlyle "just made the decision to go back to Kostka and he delivered". Still a rookie in the NHL, Kostka brings an entirely different dynamic to the Leaf back-end than does the former Avalanche defender, a poised puck facilitator in lieu of the more physical, but slower-footed presence. His recent addition to the lineup could be an attempt by Carlyle to help his club move the puck more efficiently out of the defensive zone – an issue of late – also injecting a capable presence on the second power-play. "I think a big part of my game is just really moving the puck quick and moving my feet," Kostka told TSN.ca, paired with John-Michael Liles in the past two games. "It sounds really simple, but if you can take one less second with the puck on your stick it's usually a lot more beneficial. And then to add to that just make sure I'm moving my feet, skating all the time, focusing on moving my feet as quick as possible. When I focus on those two things that seems to help my game."
Bonus Point – Bozak's absence
Tyler Bozak missed his second straight game on Saturday with an upper-body injury (day-to-day), replaced by Nazem Kadri on a top line that included Kessel – who managed his 10th goal in the past 10 games – and van Riemsdyk. While Kadri and Kessel combined for a pair of goals against Florida two nights earlier, they were quiet against Montreal save for a sprinkling of flurries in the first and second frames.
Carlyle refused to speculate on Bozak's availability to start the postseason, but his absence for any period of time would cause an unquestionable ripple effect to the Toronto lineup.
With Kadri forced into the first line centre gig, Joe Colborne moved swiftly up the depth chart, starting Saturday's game alongside Joffrey Lupul and Nik Kulemin. And while he did offer some positives against Florida on Thursday, Colborne is as inexperienced as they come, just 16 games to his NHL resume. The 23-year-old is thus hardly suited for a prominent role in the postseason.
Perhaps the better option, in light of a potential Bozak absence, would be an increase in responsibility for Mikhail Grabovski, who played fewer than 15 minutes for the eighth straight game on Saturday. Grabovski has endured a year-long struggle, but remains a creative two-way force, one who may thrive with an increase in duties.
Quote of the Night
"I'm scratching my head."
-Randy Carlyle on his team's performance against Montreal on Saturday.
1: Shot for the Leafs in the second period.
17:36: Duration between Leaf shots from the 6:19 mark of the second until the 3:45 mark of the third.
10: Goals in the past 10 games for Phil Kessel.
5: Straight seasons of at least 20 goals for Kessel, who finished at exactly 20 in 48 games this year.
3: Consecutive seasons that Kessel has played in every regular season game.
5: Points for Nazem Kadri in 12 games this month.
29: Points for Cody Franson this season, equaling a career-high, albeit in just 45 games.
16:26: Carl Gunnarsson, a season-low.
The playoffs begin.