BUFFALO - With 44 seconds left in regulation and a wide-open cage to shoot at, James van Riemsdyk fired a shot that would have tied the score at First Niagara Center. Instead, his attempt was blocked by the left leg of Sabres defender Christian Ehrhoff and the Leafs were sent their fourth loss in five games.
"There's no bigger stop in the game than Ehrhoff on JVR," said Randy Carlyle following the 3-1 defeat in Buffalo, just the second regulation win for the Sabres this season. "But those are the things that are happening against us right now and we've got to find a way to push ourselves through."
Offence has been hard to come by for the Leafs in recent days. In fact, they've scored just four goals in the past five games, just two of those markers coming at even-strength.
"We're getting some good chances - we've just got to start burying them," van Riemsdyk said.
Tied for third in team scoring with 13 points, van Riemsdyk is one among a number of the team's highest scoring players who have gone quiet. In fact, the four active leading scorers for the Leafs - van Riemsdyk, Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Mason Raymond - have combined for just six goals and six points in the past six games.
Furthering those woes are the limited contributions the club has gotten elsewhere. Seven of the 12 forwards who dressed against the Sabres have not scored this season, including David Clarkson, Jay McClement and Nik Kulemin. The defence, meanwhile, has contributed just three goals on the year, two of those empty-netters.
Recalled to fill the void of the suspended Nazem Kadri and help stem a gaping gap down the middle, Trevor Smith was the lone Leaf to score in Ted Nolan's return behind the bench in Buffalo on Friday.
Questioned on the club's offensive struggles, Carlyle pointed to the need for a simplified approach.
"Put the puck towards the net and drive people towards the net," he said. "Shoot the puck; don't try to be so fine. It seems like we're trying to pick the top corners or trying to pick spots where we should be just concentrating [on getting the puck to the net]."
The Leafs were actually one of the most effective teams offensively at even-strength last season, ranking fourth with 105 goals in five-on-five situations. So far this season though they've scored just 29 goals, tied for 20th overall after Friday night.
It would be easy to point to the recent losses of Tyler Bozak, Dave Bolland and now Kadri for the club's offensive struggles. But those troubles have only exacerbated an issue that's been simmering all year (12 of the first 47 goals were scored with the man advantage), kept quiet by a potent power-play that's recently gone silent (2-21 in the past seven games).
"We had some point-blank [chances]," said Carlyle, who was pleased with his team's effort and intensity despite the loss. "We didn't have, I think, the great number of second opportunities. The puck was bouncing away from us, but yet we had our chances in the hockey game. You look at the difference in the game: power-play. They get a power-play goal and we don't get one."
1. Centre Ice Issues
Never in his extensive coaching career has Carlyle seen quite a predicament such as the one his team currently owns at centre ice. Down their top three centres - with Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland injured and Nazem Kadri suspended - the Leafs are in a state of flux at the position.
"I'd have to say this is a new one," said Carlyle prior to the game. "You have plan A, B, C and D in the drawer and I think we're at E and F right now."
Signed to an NHL contract last week, longtime Nashville Predator Jerred Smithson may have been plan E with Trevor Smith returning to the Leafs as plan F. The 28-year-old played with the Marlies in Cleveland on Thursday night, dropped off by the team on their return home. Plugged as a fourth line centre in his previous nine games with the Leafs, Smith was thrust into a larger role against the Sabres.
"We can't expect Trevor Smith to come up at put him on our fourth line," Carlyle said. "It's unfair to him in this situation. When we had other people ahead of him, we had Bozak, we had Bolland, it's a little bit different, but in tonight's situation he's going to play a prominent role in an offensive line."
Smith scored just the second even-strength goal for the Leafs in the past five games, the fifth of his career and second this season. He totaled nearly 17 minutes, mostly alongside Raymond and Clarkson.
Smithson, meanwhile, continues to log important minutes for Carlyle - 13 against the Sabres - while assuming the bulk of his team's faceoffs. The 34-year-old has taken 80 draws in four games to lead the team.
Update - The Leafs acquired 2009 first round pick and centre Peter Holland from Anaheim. A Toronto native, Holland will join the team immediately with an opportunity to play in the top six.
2. JVR at centre
It's been clear from the get-go that the move to centre is not one that completely suits van Riemsdyk. But understanding the dilemma the club has faced and continues to face down the middle, the natural winger has complied with the coach's decision. Rarely looking comfortable and appearing to think rather than instinctively react, the 24-year-old has gone pointless in four games down the middle.
Asked if those struggles were related to his shifting to centre, van Riemsdyk replied with a sly grin and revealing response. "That's not for me to decide," he said.
Questioned on whether he'd reconsider moving van Riemsdyk back to the wing, Carlyle also replied with some frustration. "I don't have anybody else," he said.
"What else do you want me to do? Are we going to put a defenceman at forward?"
Phil Kessel grew up a centre, but has played wing almost exclusively in the NHL with plenty of success. Mason Raymond played sparingly down the middle in Vancouver, including a game or two due of injuries last season.
Like van Riemsdyk, neither is an ideal option. And so, in all likelihood, the Leafs will have to continue to grind down the middle for at least a few more games. Out since Oct. 25 with a hamstring injury, Bozak should return to practice next week and could be available by the weekend, if not early the following week. Kadri will be eligible to return from a three-game suspension on Nov. 21.
Carlyle actually employed two centres on the same line against the Sabres - Jay McClement and Smithson - using Carter Ashton sparingly in a fourth line role.
Friday marked just the second time all season that the Leafs have outshot their opponent, but as Carlyle noted after the game, his club has been reluctant to fire pucks consistently toward the net.
"When you're struggling a little bit offensively that's what you always want to try to do is simplify a little bit," said van Riemsdyk, "maybe shoot more pucks towards the net, keep driving the net and doing all those things."
The Leafs had 33 shots against Ryan Miller. They attempted 59 - to just 35 for Buffalo - 16 of which were blocked, another 10 missing the net.
4. Kadri suspension
One would have expected Nazem Kadri's hearing with NHL Senior VP of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan to include a moment or two on the Mikael Granlund hit which got the 23-year-old ejected from Wednesday's game in Minnesota. "That's what I got the match for so I was expecting some sort of discussion about that," said Kadri. "But it was all about the first one. He agreed, he thought the second one was clean."
The first one was, of course, the collision with Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom in the opening frame of an eventual 2-1 shootout loss. "I was just trying to go to the net hard to make a play and just ran out of real estate and accidentally bumped into him," said Kadri of the hit which resulted in a concussion for Backstrom.
Instigated by general managers following the Ryan Miller-Milan Lucic collision of 2011, Shanahan has tried to increase protection for goaltenders. According to Kadri, what drew the most concern from the league disciplinarian was the violent strike of the right elbow into Backstrom's head.
Lying motionless on the ice for a few moments, the 35-year-old ultimately remained in the game before leaving shortly thereafter.
"It's definitely understandable," said Kadri of the suspension. "I know they've kind of cracked down on the interference with the goaltenders and players [have] got to be aware of their surroundings now. That being said, it was unintentional."
Kadri said he was surprised to receive three games, expecting either a fine or 1-2 game suspension.
5. Bernier sharp shorthanded
Though he yielded a power-play goal to the Sabres on Friday, Jonathan Bernier has been among the most effective netminders this season when his team is shorthanded. The 25-year-old has given up just seven power-play goals on 91 shots, the fourth-ranked save percentage (.923) among goaltenders with at least 10 starts this season.
Yielding an inopportune rebound to a Tyler Myers point shot, Bernier was beaten when Cody Franson, trying to tie up the stick of Drew Stafford, accidentally nudged to the puck to Steve Ott, who buried it for Buffalo's first goal.
2 - Even-strength goals for the Leafs in the past five games.
2-21 - Leaf power-play in the past seven games, including an 0-3 showing on Friday.
80 - Total faceoffs for Jerred Smithson in four games as a Leaf, leading the team in that span.
0-3-0 - Career record for Jonathan Bernier against the Sabres.
2 - Points for David Clarkson, who added his second assist of the season against the Sabres, but remains goal-less in nine games.
23:26 - Ice-time for Cody Franson against the Sabres, leading the team.
59-35 - Shot attempts favouring the Leafs on Friday night.
6 - Combined goals and points in the past six games from James van Riemsdyk, Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Mason Raymond.
Special Teams Capsule
Quote of the Night
"That was a heck of a play by him. He made a good read and sacrificed his body for it."
-James van Riemsdyk on Christian Ehrhoff's game-saving stop late in the third period.
The Leafs return home Saturday to host the Sabres in the second half of a home-and-home set.