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Siegel: Turbulence continues as Leafs fall short in Montreal

Jonas Siegel
12/1/2013 1:18:11 AM
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MONTREAL – When Max Pacioretty scored the fourth straight Montreal goal, a shorthanded marker that squeaked through the pads of Jonathan Bernier, he holstered his stick in celebratory fashion on the ice surface of the Bell Centre.

"That's when we finally got involved in the game, we got emotionally mad," said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle of the late goal in the middle period. "What we have to question ourselves is why wouldn't we have that from the first 20 minutes."

The Leafs would score 22 seconds apart after the Pacioretty goal and celebration, but their inspired rallying attempts would ultimately fall short. They would lose a season-high fourth straight game and fifth in the past six, edged 4-2 by the Habs on Saturday evening.

It was the conclusion of a turbulent month of November for the Leafs, one that saw them drop nine of 13 games (4-6-3), falling into the fifth seed in the Atlantic division, two points back of Montreal.

Only 58 seconds had elapsed in this one before another storm began to brew.

Somehow sneaking in behind the Toronto defence on an early power-play, Pacioretty took four whacks at Bernier before he beat the Leaf goaltender for the quick strike and lead.

The Habs would add three more unanswered, including the shorthanded goal from Pacioretty that seemed to ignite the Leaf bench, albeit a response that fell short on this night.

"Again, there are times that we didn't play as well as we could've and those are the times that probably cost us the game," said James van Riemsdyk, who scored for the third time in three games. "They buried their chances, we hit some pipes…those tend to be the difference when two hard-fought teams play the game."

"We're having good spurts, but we're not putting together 60 minutes," said Mason Raymond, the last Leaf to beat Carey Price, who made 34 saves. "We've got to figure out how to create more opportunities, feed off good opportunities and ultimately get leads and run with them."

Fortunate to win a string of games early in the year on the backbone of superb goaltending and special teams, both elements have fallen off somewhat in recent weeks and once more on this night.

Bernier made 35 saves, but was less effective than Price, who stopped all but two shots. The Habs meanwhile, scored once on the man advantage and again shorthanded, the Leafs coming up dry in their four power-play opportunities.

"If you look at our games we've been giving up a lot of shots, and at a certain point you can't have luck on your side all season," Bernier told reporters in French, according to NHL.com. "There will be highs and lows, and right now we need to find the little spark we had at the beginning of the season and be excited to come play hockey and find a way to score. If we give up four then score five. I think that's what we had at the beginning of the season."

The success of October (10 wins) is but a memory after the increasingly sour vibes of November. As the calendar turns to December the games only get tougher for the Leafs with a string of top opponents, including the San Jose Sharks, Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins on the docket.
 
Adversity has hit hard and is demanding a response.

"We've got to continue to push for our group to stay with the program, build on some of the positives," said Carlyle. "Obviously there's negatives that we need to clean up and we'll continue to do that, but that's the way we're going to look at it."

Five Points

1. Goalie Regression

As was to be expected following a boiling start to the season – one that saw the tandem steal game after game early along with special teams – Leaf goaltending has tapered off somewhat in recent days. Still ranked fourth overall this season, James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier have combined to post an .894 save percentage in the past six games.

In his first start against the Canadiens this season, Bernier, a native of nearby Laval, yielded four goals on 39 shots. The 25-year-old has allowed four goals or more in each of his past three starts. "I've got to be better," said Bernier. "Obviously giving up four goals I've got to find a way to keep it a tight game."

All alone on the opening goal from Pacioretty, Bernier was then beaten by a P.K. Subban wrist shot through traffic, Tomas Plekanec back-door and Pacioretty once more on a shorthanded rush.

2. Offensive Struggles

Scoring only the pair against Price, the Leafs finished with two goals or fewer for the ninth time in November. They mustered only 17 even-strength goals in 13 games all month, still struggling to consistently brand themselves as the cycling group Carlyle envisions them to be.

"Teams don't score very much on the rush anymore in the NHL," said Carlyle. "A lot more goals are created with offensive zone time, cycling, a lot more deflections, a lot more second and third opportunities from shots and rebounds."

The Leafs have gotten almost no offence from their bottom-6 forwards all season and very little (as noted in more detail below) from their defence.

In fact, a group seven forwards has combined to score 82 per cent of the team's 72 goals this season. Kessel leads the way with 14, followed by van Riemsdyk at 12, Raymond at nine, Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri at seven apiece, Dave Bolland at six and Tyler Bozak at four.

3. Offence on Defence

Considering those struggles to generate offence the lack of firepower from the Leaf defence is certainly worth noting. The group has totaled just three goals – two from Dion Phaneuf – one of those coming into an empty net. Their most poignant struggle has been an inability to get pucks through to the net from the point, thereby creating second and third opportunities and subsequent chaos for opposing netminders.

Phaneuf, who led the Leafs with nine goals in 2013, has just two on the year, shooting the puck with far less quantity than in previous years. The 28-year-old is averaging only 1.45 shots per game, by far the fewest of his nine-year career.

Season

Shots Per Game

13-14

1.45

13

1.83

11-12

2.46

10-11

2.88

09-10

2.78

08-09

3.46

07-08

3.21

06-07

2.91

05-06

2.95

The Leaf captain appeared to score his third of the year midway through the opening frame on Saturday, but the goal was waved off immediately. The officials determined that van Riemsdyk was in the crease.

"I thought we were just jockeying for position," said van Riemsdyk, who disagreed with the decision. "But it's the ref's call. At least he was nice enough to explain it to me without reaming me out."

4. Moving the Puck

A subtle aspect of the Leafs overall game that could certainly stand to improve lies in their ability to break out of their own zone effectively. "I think it all starts with how we play (the opposition) when they're coming into the zone," said Carl Gunnarsson, who played 20 minutes against Montreal. "If we can be more aggressive from the start, not give them time (then) that usually gives us an advantage."

"It's obviously a five-man thing," added Jay McClement. "It's a lot of moving parts. It's a huge difference if we can get out of our zone clean and we have fresh legs going up the ice and you have a better chance to forecheck and get the puck back."

5. Franson injured

The Leafs had to make due against the Canadiens without Cody Franson.

Franson, believed to have suffered the lower-body injury during a scuffle with Matt Moulson on Friday, was forced to depart the pre-game warmup on Saturday, limping notably as he did so.

To fill the void of the 26-year-old, Carlyle reinserted Morgan Rielly back into the lineup, the 19-year-old sitting a night earlier against the Sabres. Already a point of instability, the Leaf defence can ill afford an injury to Franson, who leads the group with 13 points and sits second in ice-time.

Jake Gardiner, who replaced Franson alongside Mark Fraser at the outset and was eventually paired with Paul Ranger, led the group with a season-high 25 minutes.

Stat-Pack

0-3-0 – Career record for Jonathan Bernier versus the Canadiens.

4-6-3 – Leafs record in November.

25:30 – Ice-time for Jake Gardiner on Saturday, a season-high.

18 – Points for Mason Raymond this season, four off the 22 he had in 46 games last season.

15 – Number of power-play goals the Leafs allowed in November.

25:32 – Ice-time for Phil Kessel on Saturday, a season-high.

.894 – Save percentage for Leaf goaltenders in the past six games.

83% - Percentage of offence from the Leafs top seven goal-scorers this season.

Special Teams Capsule

PP: 0-4
Season: 23.2%

PK: 1-2
Season: 78.6%

Quote of the Night

"I don't know what they thought. They didn't tell me what they thought. They don't come close to you when those things are happening out there."

-Randy Carlyle, on the explanation (or lack thereof) that he received from officials after Dion Phaneuf's seemingly good goal was waved off in the opening period.

Up Next

The Leafs kick off December on Tuesday when San Jose visits the ACC.

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