TORONTO – Sour tones emanated as deeply from the Maple Leafs dressing room as they have all year after yet another flattening loss, one that dug the pit of current despair ever deeper.
Toronto was trounced at home on Tuesday night by a young and plucky Florida Panthers squad. It was the 11th loss in the past 15 games, a stretch that includes exactly one regulation win.
"We simply got embarrassed," said Mason Raymond, outwardly peeved with the performance in a 3-1 loss at the ACC. "It's pretty simple. I don't think guys can be happy with that at all. We got embarrassed at home."
Utterly flat for the opening 40 minutes, the Leafs, playing their fifth game in seven nights, were outworked and overmatched in nearly all regards by an enthusiastic Panthers bunch. Florida scored the opener before four minutes had elapsed on the clock – a Nazem Kadri offensive zone giveaway springing a Tomas Fleischmann breakaway – adding a pair in the middle frame.
Though they were surely fatigued, the Leafs lacked little of the gusto or gumption required to turn the corner of a lingering skid. Lost defensive zone battles often appeared a matter of will. Tuesday suitably marked the 12th time in 13 games that they allowed three goals or more, a product of ongoing inadequate team defence (more in Five Points).
"They won more puck battles than we did," said Randy Carlyle of the Panthers. "All the 50-50 pucks that were available to us, I would say that they won the majority of them, specifically in the first two periods."
Offensively, they were too often a one-and-done attack for the coach's liking, opting for the extra pass or play in the name of simplicity. There was little of the sustained offensive zone time that manifested itself in a stunning weekend win against the defending Stanley Cup champs.
"We were guilty of trying to be too cute," said Carlyle. "Too many curls and drags versus putting our head down and driving the puck towards the net and maybe scoring an ugly goal. I classified our game as we tried to play shinny against an NHL hockey club tonight."
The Leafs have endured their fair share of misery since the outset of November. Nothing summed up the despair quite like losing twice in a matter of weeks to the lowly Sabres and Blue Jackets. But for maybe the first time on Tuesday, there was a real sense among those players assembled that the struggles had reached a low point.
"I don't think we're going to make excuses," said Dion Phaneuf, admittedly off-kilter in his performance against Florida. "We know that we've got to play better and we're the guys that are going to get us out of this. It's about what we're going to do in this room to find a way to get out of this funk that we're in."
The Panthers may have won five of six entering the evening, but they sat as the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference. And yet they managed to "embarrass" the Leafs on home ice.
"We either have half a team or a full team that don't show up at parts and then things go wrong," said James Reimer, who yielded three goals on 23 shots. "We need to find a way to come and bring it every night or for 60 minutes a night and then do that consecutively."
"The coaching staff is frustrated. The players are frustrated. I'm sure management is frustrated. I'm sure our fans are frustrated," said Carlyle. "Is it a crisis? It's a crisis that we haven't won enough games. That's the way I would deem it."
1. An Excuse or Reality?
The Leafs were playing their fifth game in seven nights and certainly appeared low on gas early (though they managed to muster something late). The mere mention of the schedule, however, caused most to recoil.
"There's never an excuse," said Reimer. "There's never an excuse. Injuries, tired – it's all BS. Those are excuses and they're useless. What it comes down to is your will, your heart, your character."
Additionally, Reimer said, injuries would not be blamed for the ongoing struggle. "We should be able to win with half of our guys out," he said.
"You just find ways. You trust each other. You believe in each other and you play with that confidence. That's the case here. I have full and absolute faith in my teammates, the coaches and everyone. We've done it before, we've done it last year and we've done it this year. It's just a matter of putting it together and I have no doubts we can do it."
2. No Defence
No longer saved nightly by the heroic efforts of their two goaltenders – as they were in October – the Leafs have been a wreck defensively since the outset of November. During a stretch of 22 games, beginning on Nov. 2, they've allowed 71 goals or an average of 3.23 per game. They've allowed three or more in 16 of those 22 games, losing 14 times.
Among those who struggled in that regard against the Panthers was Phaneuf. There was the inability to track down Fleischmann on the opening goal and the giveaway to Brad Boyes on the third Florida marker.
"I've got better," he said. "I made some mistakes tonight that are unacceptable."
3. Gardiner Benched
A strong message was sent to Jake Gardiner on Tuesday night. Gardiner was benched for the final eight-plus minutes of the second and opening 10 minutes of the third. The 23-year-old gave the puck away to Sean Bergenheim in the defensive zone, an error that preceded the Panthers second goal.
"It's pretty hard to defend," said Carlyle of the error. "You've got to expect to have a higher level of execution than that in that situation. I thought that in the game he struggled with the puck."
Carlyle felt that Gardiner was often careless with the puck, throwing it away in too many situations. "Right now those are compiling to us receiving the game too often," he said. "(But) I wouldn't say he's the only guy that made them."
Gardiner was coming off a similarly difficult finish in a loss to Pittsburgh on Monday evening. He made two errors that preceded Sidney Crosby's eventual game-winner; there was the icing that pinned the Leafs in the defensive zone and the failed clearing attempt following a faceoff win by Jay McClement.
Gardiner played just 16 minutes.
4. Starting Slowly
There was the feeble first period effort in St. Louis, the wobbly opening in Pittsburgh and another stunted opening 20 (and 40) against Florida. Kadri's offensive zone giveaway with less than four minutes gone sprung the Fleischmann breakaway and the game's opening goal. It was the 17th time in 36 games that an opponent had scored first on the Leafs and the 12th loss in such situations (4-11-1).
"Our starts need to be better," said Raymond, who scored the Leafs lone goal. "That's a big part of it. I think stats show when you score the first goal odds are in your favour to win the game."
The Leafs are 13-5-2 when scoring first this season.
5. Searching for Balance
Raymond entered the night as the Leafs third-leading scorer and yet began Tuesday's game alongside Troy Bodie and Trevor Smith. He was replaced on the second unit by David Clarkson, who returned from a two-game suspension. It was an odd move, one likely aimed at sparking Clarkson while balancing out the offence.
"That's a tricky thing," said Carlyle. "We tried to spread a little more offence with moving Raymond down. It probably wasn't fair to him…but I thought that would be an opportunity for them to play against lesser players with some speed out there. But that didn't work for us."
By the third frame, Raymond was reunited with Peter Holland and Joffrey Lupul, scoring the Leafs lone goal on a redirection.
Already down Dave Bolland and Tyler Bozak at centre ice, the Leafs would lose Smith to a broken hand in the third frame of the loss. He blocked a Scotty Upshall shot and did not return. The organization has already tested its ranks at centre with the Smith recall and Holland trade, also trying its hand for a lengthy stretch with long-time NHL'er Jerred Smithson.
It's more adversity to a group that already has its fair share of it.
16 – Number of times in the past 22 games that the Leafs have allowed three goals or more.
3.23 – Goals against per game since the start of November.
15:27 – Ice-time for David Clarkson in his return from a two-game suspension.
11 – Losses for the Leafs in the past 15 games.
1 – Regulation victory in those 15 games, a 7-3 bashing of the Blackhawks on Saturday.
16:03 – Ice-time for Jake Gardiner against Florida, his lowest since mid-November.
11 – Goals for Mason Raymond this season, surpassing the 10 he had in 46 games a year ago.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 23.7% (4th)
Season: 77.3% (27th)
Quote of the Night
"We simply got embarrassed. It's pretty simple. I don't think guys can be happy with that at all. We got embarrassed at home. I think we got beat out all over the ice in almost all situations. It's something we need to improve."
-Mason Raymond, following the loss to Florida.
The Leafs host the Coyotes at the ACC on Thursday night.