TORONTO – It took less than a week for life to sour for the Maple Leafs.
Six days after rallying for perhaps their finest win of the season in the sunshine of L.A. – and second in the challenging California triangle – did they drop their third straight game Wednesday, sullied by the hat trick of Steven Stamkos in what proved a dour night at the ACC.
"Obviously we haven't played as well as we need to," said head coach Randy Carlyle following the 5-3 defeat. "And we're not sitting here saying that we're playing the type of hockey that is required to have success. Is it a trend? Well we lost three games in a row. If we show the desperation that we displayed in the last half of the game for 60 minutes we surely could improve our chances, that's for sure."
With the loss – their fourth in the past five games – Toronto fell three points back of Tampa for second spot in the Atlantic with another key division match looming on Saturday with Montreal in town.
Once in fine shape to make it back to the playoffs for a second straight spring, the Leafs are skidding at the wrong time and hurting those chances. They still hold the first wild card position (80 points), but have ceded ground to the Blue Jackets (76 points), Capitals (76), and Red Wings (75) – all have games in hand – also failing to keep pace with the Lightning (83) and Canadiens (83).
Still struggling to defend, the Leafs have not had the brilliance of Jonathan Bernier to lean on during this recent three-game slide, nor have they been able to outscore opponents on the strength of their top line, a source of success in many victories this season.
With 11 games still remaining they certainly have time to veer back in the right direction.
"No sense in panicking," concluded James Reimer following the latest loss.
Yielding the first goal for the fifth consecutive game on this night, the Leafs started sluggishly in their first game back from a lengthy five-game road trip, running around in the defensive zone. By the end of 20 minutes they were down 3-2 on a pair from Stamkos, also reeling from the scary loss of Paul Ranger (more on that in Five Points).
"We've had a trend over the last three games where we seem like we're starting a little sluggish," said Mason Raymond afterward. "We're not getting the exact start that we're wanting. I think later in the game we showed that desperation, but we need that for 60 minutes."
Peppering 22 shots at Ben Bishop in the final frame – even pulling to within one on another goal from Jake Gardiner – Toronto made a late push, but like recent comeback efforts in Washington and Detroit, they ultimately fell short.
Unhappy with a schedule that saw his team return from 10 days on the road only to host Tampa on the second end of a back-to-back – they lost to the Red Wings on Tuesday – Carlyle felt fatigue was an issue.
"It's not an excuse," he said. "But it's a trying situation. It's not easy. And you could definitely tell that they had more jump than we did, specifically at the beginning. But we started to play a lot more desperate and we showed that we have more in the tank. It's just that we had to run on some emotion. We didn't have that emotion in the first half of the game and we developed it in the second half of the game and that's the positive part."
1. Reimer's Response
Reimer returned to the net less than 24 hours after his performance in Detroit was criticized by Carlyle. His night started just as poorly as the night previous had ended, with Radko Gudas sailing a point shot through a maze of traffic and beyond the surprised 26-year-old.
"I just didn't see the puck," said Reimer afterward. "It's a crappy way to start the game."
Rarely looking comfortable, though not helped at times by his support staff, Reimer yielded five at the end of the evening on just 30 shots. He owns a .901 save percentage in his last five appearances, all coming consecutively in the past week.
"Just like the rest of our team," said Carlyle, noticeably bothered by the swell of attention his comments the previous evening received. "I get in trouble when I comment about goalies with [the media]."
"First thing I just wanted to come out and play well and be a difference-maker and unfortunately it wasn't the case," said Reimer. "I felt I made some good saves, but definitely wasn't the performance I was looking for. I wanted to come out and be big, keep your team in it. It just didn't happen tonight."
Bothered by a groin injury, Bernier took to the ice Wednesday morning for the first time since he exited a long-awaited return to the Staples Center last week. He was expected to skate again in full equipment again on Friday with his status for a weekend back-to-back still in doubt.
2. Scary Incident
Only 4.1 seconds remained in the first when Ranger was hammered from behind by Lightning forward Alex Killorn. Reversing to his left at the very last second, the 29-year-old was caught by the elbow of Killorn as he was slammed into the glass.
"He was in a tough spot," said Tim Gleason, who rushed in to confront Killorn afterward. "He was facing the glass I think most of the way in. I think a little extra bump and that's all it takes. It almost looks harmless but it's not."
A hush encompassing the entire arena, Ranger remained down on the ice for quite a while, surrounded by concerned teammates and the team's medical staff. He was eventually helped off the ice on a stretcher, the intermission beginning with time still left on the clock and the Leafs left to wonder about the health of their fallen teammate.
"That's scary," said Joffrey Lupul of the incident, Killorn receiving a five-minute major and game misconduct. "That's one of your teammates, your friends, a guy you see everyday. It didn't look great when he was leaving the ice. You're trying to clear your head and focus on the next period, but you can't lie, obviously part of you is wondering what's going on with him."
Ranger was taken to a local hospital and, according to the team, was "stable, conscious and alert".
3. Stamkos Dominates
With the hat trick Wednesday, Stamkos now has 13 goals and 25 points in 20 career games against his hometown team.
Seven games back into his comeback from a broken tibia, he scored his first of the night on a power-play – David Clarkson in the box – lost back-door by Gleason and the Toronto penalty kill. He added a second marker less than three minutes later, just a step ahead of Dion Phaneuf for position in front of Reimer.
The Lightning captain completed the trifecta early in the middle frame. Capitalizing on a failed clearing attempt by Lupul, Stamkos beat his counterpart to an Eric Brewer rebound, banging it past Reimer for the fourth Tampa goal. "We had five guys around the puck," said Carlyle of the marker, which made it 4-2 for the Lightning. "We had five people in position, but we were coasting and we were watching."
"We're just getting exposed," added Lupul.
"The area in which Stamkos scored his goals, you don't want to give anybody, specifically anybody of that skill-set, that kind of space in that area," Carlyle concluded.
4. Reimer II
His future almost certainly resting outside of Toronto, Reimer made no secret of his troubles and tribulations this season, relegated to backup duty. "It's been a really big test of character," he said. "Learnt a lot about perseverance, endurance, and fighting through adversity. Really hasn't gone the way I'd hoped. I haven't played, I don't think, up to my capability for the last little while. It's tough. It's not for lack of effort, not for lack of passion or desire. But things just aren't clicking. I'm working hard, trying to stay positive, believing in myself and I fully believe that things will turn around."
5. Depth Scoring
Offensive depth for the Leafs has gone almost completely quiet.
Lupul and one-time linemate Nazem Kadri – they were split against the Lightning – have just two apiece in the past 14 games. David Clarkson has totaled just four all season and one in the past 23 games. Nik Kulemin scored Wednesday for just the second time in the past 18. Peter Holland has gone 20 straight without a single marker, potting just one point in that span. And Jay McClement, a source of eight goals in 48 games a year ago, has just three in 70 games.
All of which has upped the pressure on the team's top line to produce, their failure to do so often meaning defeat. Phil Kessel snapped a four-game goal drought with his 35th of the year against the Lightning and though dangerous, his line was held off the scoresheet otherwise.
Toronto forwards have just seven goals in the past six games, carried by the defence which has eight, including four from Gardiner.
5 – Consecutive games in which Toronto has allowed the first goal.
2-1-0 – Leafs record against the Lightning this season.
7 – Goals from the Toronto forward group in the past six games.
14 – Number of times the Leafs have outshot their opposition this season, including a 39-30 advantage on Wednesday.
22:39 – Ice-time for James van Riemsdyk against the Lightning, leading the team.
7 – Consecutive games with a goal for the Leafs defence.
5 – Goals from Jake Gardiner in the past seven games.
20 – Consecutive games without a goal Peter Holland.
2 – Goals for Nik Kulemin in the past 18 games. Kulemin scored his ninth of the year against Tampa.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 20.4 per cent (7th)
Season: 78.3 per cent (28th)
Quote of the Night
"Just like the rest of our team. I get in trouble when I comment about goalies with [the media]. I could say yes and no from here on in, but I don't think that would be fair would it?"
-Randy Carlyle, asked about the performance of James Reimer on Wednesday night.
The Leafs host the Canadiens Saturday in another key division clash.