BUFFALO – November has proven a gloomy month from start to (near) finish for the Leafs.
What began with a disastrous 4-0 defeat in Vancouver continued Friday with another loss to the league's worst team, a 3-2 overtime edging by the Sabres at First Niagara Center, their fourth in the past five games.
It was the eighth loss in 12 games in November for the Leafs (4-5-3) and sixth straight defeat on the road. Buffalo has just three wins outside of regulation all season, two of them coming against Toronto in the past two weeks.
"We've just got to stick with it," said James van Riemsdyk, following the latest loss. "You can never be too high or too low. It's a long season. We're in a decent position right now still."
With just two regulation wins all month, the Leafs are now tied for fourth in the Atlantic Division – the Canadiens have an identical 14-9-3 record with the two clubs meeting in Montreal on Saturday – their 6-1-0 start to the season far in the rear-view mirror.
Only an elite power play unit and sturdy goaltending have remained intact (though that too is regressing somewhat in recent days) through the opening two months.
Mustering fewer than two goals of offence per game in November (1.92 to be precise) while yielding more than three against (3.08), the Leafs are struggling right now on both sides of the puck. A once confident penalty kill too has fallen into turmoil. The unit allowed its 14th power play goal of the month to the Sabres, dipping to 71 per cent in that span.
On this night, the Leafs jumped out to a 1-0 lead on the 14th goal of the year from Phil Kessel, grabbing the edge once more on the second this season from Nik Kulemin. Both leads were erased, however, the Sabres coming from behind to win on a goal from Christian Ehrhoff 38 seconds into overtime.
The goal came just minutes after van Riemsdyk was hauled down by Matt D'Agostini on a shorthanded rush in the closing moments of regulation. No call was made on the play.
"The breaks aren't going our way," said head coach Randy Carlyle, his frustration obvious.
The Leafs will close the month of November with their second road date of the season in Montreal. December looms with a particularly difficult schedule, the Sharks, Bruins, Kings, Blues, Blackhawks and Penguins all on the calendar.
"We still have a lot of games left so we've just got to keep trying to find ways to figure out the things that are going wrong and then keep doing some of the things that we're doing well," said van Riemsdyk.
1. Road Woes
The defeat marked the sixth straight away from the Air Canada Centre for the Leafs, now 5-5-3 on the road this season. Outscored 19-10 during the six-game stretch, their last win outside of Toronto came on Oct. 30 in Calgary.
2. Late Call in Question
Streaking down the right side of the ice with the Leafs killing off a late penalty to Paul Ranger, van Riemdsyk had his legs swept out beneath him by D'Agostini, his body crashing into the vacated net.
"They said that he played the puck and he made contact with the puck," Carlyle said D'Agostini, "thus he's allowed to cross-block and take our player out. In my mind, I didn't think it deemed a penalty shot, but I thought it should've been a penalty for taking the players' knees out. But they didn't make the call."
"I don't want to get into too much," said van Riemsdyk, "but I tried to slide [the puck] over to my forehand and then my legs went out from under me so that's all I remember."
The Leafs would eventually kill off the penalty to Ranger, but the Sabres would score in overtime before he could rejoin the play. "You can't take your hand off the stick and grab the player," Carlyle said of Ranger's penalty, a holding call which saw him grab Ville Leino. "That's new rules hockey."
3. Shorthanded Draws
Moments before Ehrhoff scored the winner did the Leafs lose a shorthanded draw, a rare loss by Jerred Smithson in this instance. A subtle point in their struggles on the penalty kill this season (now 20th overall) has been diminished effectiveness on the draw shorthanded.
Tyler Bozak and Jay McClement, who absorb the majority of faceoffs in such situations, have not been quite as successful this season as they were a year ago.
The pair combined to win a healthy 52 per cent in 2013, but have so far dipped to just 42 per cent. Bozak in particular, has struggled considerably. The 27-year-old has won just 35 per cent of his shorthanded draws in 14 games this winter.
Added to the roster last month, Smithson has actually been the team's most efficient faceoff man on the penalty kill and at even strength. The 34-year-old is now 18-33 on the penalty kill in 11 games.
*With Edmonton and Florida
4. November Leaders
Though he's played in just seven games this month, Trevor Smith has vaulted to the top of the Leafs scoring chart in November. Indicative of their offensive troubles this month, Smith, with six points, is now tied with van Riemsdyk and Mason Raymond for the monthly scoring lead.
Slightly behind in that race is the team's overall scoring leader. While he did pot his 14th this season, the 26-year-old Kessel has gone 13 straight games without an assist, boasting five goals and five points in 12 games this month.
5. Mix on Defence
Paired together for all but five games of the 2013 regular season, Mark Fraser and Cody Franson were reunited this week in Carlyle's search for some stability beyond his top pair of Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson.
"It's great how comfortable we are with one another," said Fraser before Friday's game, "whether it's just the talking to each other – the vocabulary – [or] our body language. We played long enough with one another that we can really read off of each other. We're definitely excited to be back."
Jake Gardiner returned to the lineup after sitting for the first time all season in Pittsburgh. The 23-year-old replaced Morgan Rielly alongside Paul Ranger against the Sabres, notching an assist in 21 minutes. "I thought we all played a decent game tonight, played hard, competed and they capitalized at the end," said Gardiner.
6-2-2 – Career record for James Reimer versus Buffalo.
8 – Blocked shots for Mark Fraser against the Sabres, a game-high.
1.92 – Goals per game for the Leafs this month.
6 - Points for Trevor Smith in November, tied for the team lead.
13 – Consecutive games without an assist for Phil Kessel.
4-5-3 – Leafs record in November.
34-48 – Toronto penalty kill over the past 12 games.
Special Teams Capsule
Quote of the Night
"I don't think [you] need rocket science to figure out that if you continue to give up five and six goals, you're not going to get many points. We have to buckle down definitely in that area. We've got to get our defensive game going to a higher level. And maybe part of that is to create a little bit more in the offensive zone as far as time in there."
- Randy Carlyle, on his team's struggles defensively.
The Leafs conclude a three-game road trip in Montreal on Saturday evening.