ST. LOUIS – On the heels of their best game all year came one of the worst.
The Maple Leafs were blasted 6-3 by the Blues at Scottrade Center on Thursday night. It was Toronto's eighth loss in the past 10 games (2-6-2), 13th in the past 19, and a drastic reversal in course from an inspired home loss to the Kings one night earlier.
"Tonight it looked like we were totally brain-dead in a lot of areas," said Randy Carlyle, following the defeat.
All the persistence, feistiness and energy of their effort against Los Angeles deteriorated in a hurry against the Blues. St. Louis buried three goals on its first 15 shots in a dominant opening frame – chasing James Reimer from the crease – before adding a goal in the second and a pair in the third.
"It just looked like we weren't there mentally at the start," said Carlyle.
It was a stinging return to the inconsistent, chaotic hockey which has plagued the group for the better part of the season. Most baffling, however, was the dramatic shift in performance from the night previous. Though they ultimately fell 3-1 to Los Angeles at the ACC on Wednesday night, the Leafs were the superior team and played their most complete game of the season.
The starting point they hoped to gain from the effort – a largely stingy defensive effort – never materialized against the Blues, dominant with 21 wins in 30 games this season.
"Even though we lost that game [against the Kings] it was something to build on," said Carl Gunnarsson, "and tonight it's like it was all gone."
Concern has to be inching ever upward with the mounting losses and little to no sustained improvement. The Leafs have just two regulation victories since the start of November and face the defending Stanley Cup champs at home on Saturday.
"Our concern has been very high for a while here," said Carlyle. "We thought with our performance [Wednesday] night it would be something we could build on, but we just didn't have any kind of an energy to be able to put forth an effort that was needed."
1. Defensive Issues
In describing his team as "totally brain-dead", Carlyle was referring mostly to the areas in which St. Louis managed to score. David Backes opened the scoring untouched from just outside the slot. Jaden Schwartz had two whacks just outside the blue paint for the second St. Louis goal. Derek Roy pranced in untouched through the slot on the third. Chances and opportunities of that kind continued throughout the night.
"I don't know any other way to describe it from a standpoint of where the goals were being scored from again," said Carlyle. "We have systems that our coverage has to be in place and if you vacate those critical areas you're going to give up quality scoring chances."
Revealingly, the Leafs have allowed three goals or more in 13 of the past 19 games, losing all but one.
"They had a lot of freedom in our zone," said Carlyle of the Blues. "Look where they scored the goals from."
2. In Need of Urgency
Carlyle has been beating the drum of urgency from the opening days of the season when his team won games on the shoulders of terrific goaltending and special teams. But at this point in the year, more than a third of way through but with plenty of time still remaining, the urgency level appears mixed in the Toronto dressing room. A clear understanding of just how long this skid has lingered seems lost.
"There's lots of time," said Nazem Kadri. "Fifty games left, there's no reason to panic. It's just something we've got to figure out in the dressing room."
"We started off playing terrific," he said later of the team's start to the season. "Obviously some things made us take a couple steps backward with injuries and things like that. It's tough to be mentally and physically prepared when things like that just keep happening. But it's up to us. We're professionals. We do have a good team inside this dressing room. We believe we can win and we're confident still, we've just got to figure out ways around these games."
3. Urgency v. Intensity
James Reimer had interesting insight on the need for urgency amid a skid that's lingered for more than a month and longer than that if you include October.
"Sometimes it's hard to differ between urgency and intensity," he said.
"If you get tense that's the worst-case scenario. If you can get some urgency in your game without squeezing your stick then that's important. But in the market we play in the biggest key is keeping the pressure off and trying to stay as loose as possible. That's the main thing. It's really easy to get too intense. Do we need some more urgency? Probably. But you have to be careful when you start going down that path."
4. Reimer's Quick Night
Reimer got the hook after third Blues goal. He allowed three goals on 15 shots and was replaced by Jonathan Bernier.
"Too many goals," Reimer said of the performance, coming on the heels of a 47-save effort in Ottawa. "I felt good out there, felt good in warm-up, felt like I was seeing the puck. But just a couple got by, obviously a couple too many.
"I felt like I was on my game, pucks just found a way in."
"I'm not blaming the goaltending specifically," said Carlyle. "I just think it was part in parcel with our hockey club."
5. Western Exposure
The Blues were the fourth Western Conference team on the Leafs docket in the first two weeks of December with Chicago and Phoenix lying ahead in the days to come.
"Guys say it's more defensive in that conference," Jake Gardiner said prior to the loss to St. Louis. "I was talking to [former Leaf] Matt Frattin and he said the same thing. He said it's a lot harder to score and get points and get production. Yeah, definitely noticed a difference."
(Frattin had seven goals and 13 points in 25 games with the Leafs last season, but has just two goals and six points with similar ice-time through the same number of games with the Kings).
"There's definitely a different style," said Jay McClement, who spent all but his last two seasons in the West. "There's obviously a lot of big, strong teams out here."
The Leafs are now 7-7-1 versus the West this season.
13 – Losses for the Leafs in the past 19 games.
13 – Number of times in those 19 games that the Leafs allowed three goals or more, losing all but one.
7-7-1 – Leafs record versus the Western Conference this season.
14 – Goals for James van Riemsdyk this season.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 23.3 per cent (4th)
Season: 77.2 per cent (27th)
Quote of the Night
"Tonight it looked like we were totally brain-dead in a lot of areas."
-Randy Carlyle, following the loss to St. Louis
The Leafs host the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks at the ACC on Saturday evening.