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Siegel: Chorus of concern as Leaf struggles continue

Jonas Siegel
11/27/2013 2:52:18 PM
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PITTSBURGH – Save for the voice of Randy Carlyle and members of his coaching staff, Maple Leafs practice was generally an eerily quiet affair on Tuesday afternoon. Tension lingered from what occurred less than 24 hours earlier.

"Push him!" Carlyle bellowed at the morning session in Toronto, the team departing to Pittsburgh shortly thereafter for a Wednesday affair against the Metropolitan division-leading Penguins. "Get up! Get up!"

It was the voice of a head coach frustrated with his group.

Spanked 6-0 by the ailing Blue Jackets at home on Monday evening, the Leafs were dealt a thunderous reality check at the ACC, the year-long woes and concerns of Carlyle culminating in an embarrassing defeat.

"It's not like he came in and really reamed us out," Nazem Kadri said of Carlyle following arguably the team's worst game this season. "I think we all knew what we thought of the game. We just want to flush it as fast as possible and get to the next one."

Outshot, outworked, outplayed, there was not much to like about the effort against Columbus, nor the concerning trends it brought to the forefront. The alarming defeat came just two nights after 50 shots were pelted at James Reimer in a shootout victory over Washington and a mere four nights after a puzzling, uninspired defeat to Nashville.

With just two regulation wins all month and a difficult schedule looming in December, improvements are increasingly urgent in need.

"The fact is we haven't played to where we think we're capable of playing and we haven't played to the template that we think we have to play to," said Carlyle.

Among the concerns is an offensive attack that's fallen into slumber.

Shut out for the second time this season against the Blue Jackets, the Leafs have scored just 16 goals in the past 10 games, a mere 10 of those coming at even strength. Phil Kessel notably has one even-strength point all month, the team led in November scoring by Mason Raymond and Trevor Smith.

Most frustrating to Carlyle is the manner in which his team has generated offence all season – save for a still potent power play – the bulk of it coming in speedy transition.

Last week, Predators coach Barry Trotz referred to the Leafs as a "rush team", a distinction that while accurate based upon evidence, infuriated Carlyle to no end.

"That's what people perceive us as," he said. "[But] is that what we are? We don't want to be that."

Carlyle has pushed and prodded for his group to wade away from that dazzling show-and-go (and often one-and-done) attack which has generated much of the goal-scoring and stray toward a blue-collar cycle game. He wants more shots to the net – the Leafs average the third fewest in the league – more second and third chance opportunities and more goals from the "dirty areas" of the ice.

"And truthfully, our defence has got to do a better job of getting pucks into that area when our forwards are there," he said.

It's a brand that's emerged in bits and pieces, most prominently during a dominant 20 minutes in a loss to Boston earlier this month. "Not for 60 minutes," Carlyle said. "That's the issue. You have to be prepared to play to your style, your template for a majority of the game for you to have success."

"That's been our problem this year," Kadri said in full agreement. "We'll play some good hockey, but it hasn't been for 60 minutes. And that's really what we need to focus on."

Yielding a flood of odd-man opportunities to the Blue Jackets on Monday and a boatload of shots and opportunities to the Capitals over the weekend, defensive improvements are also suitably on the agenda, even moreso with the high-powered Penguins on deck.

Toronto goaltending has been so good most nights that it's cloaked the team's troubles in these areas, but it's been a problem no less. Only the Senators and Sabres allow more shots nightly than the Leafs.

One minor change designed to help ease those troubles would see Mark Fraser reunite with Cody Franson. Paired together for most of last season, Fraser and Franson evolved into a second pairing for Carlyle, broken up this fall with a new mix of defenders.

Jake Gardiner is also expected to be scratched for the first time this season in favour of Paul Ranger.

A weak link all year, the Leaf defence has proven unstable beyond the top pairing of Carl Gunnarsson and Dion Phaneuf.

Yet to field a full roster, the Leafs will also be without Joffrey Lupul for the next two weeks. The 30-year-old suffered a grade-2 groin strain on Monday night.

"We were lucky in a lot of ways that our goaltending and our special teams were winning us hockey games when the shot clock was lopsided and we weren't creating enough and we were being hemmed in [our own zone]," Carlyle said. "That, to me, is a sign that we've got to change some of the things that we're doing out there. We've tried to implement that on a day-to-day basis, but [Monday] night might've been a culmination of the grand scheme of things. It was a pretty ugly game for us.

"What we're looking for from our group is a response."

Optimism for the group lies in the fact that they remain third in the Atlantic division with 29 points, though after a furious 6-1-0 start, the Leafs are just 8-8-1.

"Our game hasn't been really where we wanted it to be for most parts," Gunnarsson said. "I think we can step it up. [But] we're in a good spot. We've still got a lot of points and that's a good thing, right?"

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