NEWARK – The Maple Leafs are teetering on the edge of another late season collapse.
Five straight losses (and six in the past seven) now dot the schedule – matching their longest skid of the year – after they fell again in New Jersey on Sunday night, topped 3-2 by Cory Schneider and the Devils. Playoff fortunes that once appeared secure have slipped into a more precarious state with a troubling tumble in the past week.
All-too-recently fighting for second spot in the Atlantic division, Toronto has fallen to the edge of the playoffs, now in the second wild card position – mere inches ahead of Washington and Columbus – with only nine games to play.
“The bottom line,” said head coach Randy Carlyle after the latest loss, “is it's a results-orientated sport and we have to find a way to stop the bleeding here and do everything in our power to regroup with this hockey club and get them playing to a higher level.”
If not playing entirely badly these days, the Leafs are doing just enough to lose, be it through sluggish starts, highly visible defensive breakdowns, and ordinary goaltending. On this night they fell behind for the seventh straight game, allowed a pair of goals via odd-man rush and breakaway, and had their backup goaltender struggle again to come up with a timely save.
“I don't think we're playing that bad,” said Phil Kessel, who scored his 36th of the year in defeat, crashing into the goal-post in doing so. “[But] it's a tough stretch I'll tell you that much.”
Tough stretch, indeed.
It was only 11 days earlier, after James Reimer stole victory in Los Angeles, that the Leafs appeared in prime position for their second straight playoff spring. They sat three points up on the Lightning and Canadiens, 10 on the Capitals, nine on the Red Wings, seven on the Flyers, and six on the Rangers and Blue Jackets.
Five of the seven has since passed them over, only Columbus and Washington trailing – just barely, mind you, with games in hand. It's been a remarkable spiral in a very short window, different in that way from the infamous 18-wheeler collapse of 2012 which cost Ron Wilson his job.
The Leafs couldn't emerge unscathed from that storm, but can they find a way out of this one? Pressure is building, time is ticking, and the race is kicking into high gear with the Blues, Flyers and Wings all on deck in the coming week.
Concern was evident as they exited the visitors' dressing room, one by one at Prudential Center, keen to the reality of what's at stake. “We lost five in a row here right so it's building here,” said Kessel of the pressure. “Obviously we need some wins.”
1. The Struggle Continues
His confidence all but shattered at this point, Reimer was yanked for the sixth time this season. He yielded three goals on 10 shots, his save percentage in relief of the injured Jonathan Bernier dipping to .889 in six appearances.
The 26-year-old has not won a start in more than two months (Jan. 21).
Of that sunken confidence, Reimer concurred. “It's never high after a loss obviously and getting pulled,” he said. “[But] as crazy as it sounds I know I'm becoming a better goalie and obviously a better person.”
Ever the optimist, Reimer explained why.
“It's been a ton of adversity in many different forms,” he said. “And so when you can weather it and keep your chin up you just get better.”
Appearing in just his fifth NHL game, Drew MacIntyre stopped all 14 shots he faced in place of Reimer.
Where that leaves the Leafs crease with St. Louis on deck is unclear. Carlyle didn't know if Bernier (groin) would be available for the Tuesday affair. If he's not for the sixth straight game, it's not hard to envision MacIntyre getting his first NHL start.
2. Finger Pointing
The Leafs have been a poor defensive team all year, requiring fantastic goaltending most nights from Bernier to have success. They've not gotten such heroics in relief with Reimer.
His days in Toronto soon to be numbered, Reimer could not fend off an odd-man rush late in the opening frame – Morgan Rielly caught up ice, Nazem Kadri stuck on a bad line change – beaten glove-side by Damien Brunner. Faked out by Patrik Elias when he snuck behind the defence on the second Devils goal, Reimer then yielded a late squeaker that ultimately drove the hook from Carlyle.
“We haven't helped him out one bit,” said Tyler Bozak, charged in his defence of Reimer. “Obviously it's easy to pick on the goalie when things are going bad for a team. But it's a team game. We win and lose as a team. We haven't been playing near well enough to win games. It hasn't been him at all.”
“Usually in this type of playoff atmosphere you've got to find a way to knuckle down and play a tighter brand of defensive hockey,” Carlyle said. “We seem to be able to give up those opportunities early and then we seem to tighten up as the game goes on.”
3. Season Gone Wrong
Just a night before his first game back in New Jersey as a member of the Leafs, David Clarkson barely saw the ice. He played just eight minutes and 54 seconds in the 4-3 loss to Montreal, his lowest total (save for injury) since Nov. 5, 2010.
A season gone wrong has seen no signs of let-up for the 29-year-old, who left the Devils last summer for a seven-year deal with the Leafs worth more than $36 million. From suspension to injuries to suspension to struggles to find a role, Clarkson has had few, if any, positives this season.
“The way this year's gone I could never imagine it,” said Clarkson, before facing his former team.
His four goals and 10 points are matched by Dave Bolland, who missed nearly five months with an ankle injury, and Troy Bodie, who has garnered half the ice-time in 13 fewer games. Barring an unforeseeable late season surge, Clarkson would set career-lows in goals, points and shooting percentage (he missed 21 games) – his previous low for points coming in the 2010-11 season when he posted just 18 in 82 games, including only two on the power-play.
And if there is one similarity to that year in Jersey to his first in Toronto it's the power-play and his opportunity on it.
When Clarkson exploded for 45 goals and 70 points in the two seasons which preceded his signing in Toronto he did so in large part because of the power-play. About a third of his production came that way in fact, the Mimico native totaling 14 power-play goals (31 per cent of the total) and 24 power-play points (34 per cent). His ice-time had not surprisingly sky-rocketed from where it had been previously (up to nearly four minutes per game a year ago).
This season, that opportunity has tumbled back downward.
Buried behind the more skilled likes of Kessel, van Riemsdyk, Bozak, Kadri, Lupul and Raymond, Clarkson has rarely seen the power-play – about 54 minutes total – and thusly has just two points from it. Combine that with a considerable drop in shot attempts and shooting percentage, far less crash and bang and an unending search for a clear-cut role and the season has simply evolved into a nightmare for the former Devil.
He played 10 minutes on this night, stuck without a point for the 22nd time in the past 24 games.
4. Falling Behind
When Brunner beat Reimer he gave the Devils a 1-0 lead and handed the Leafs their seventh straight deficit to start a game. They fell behind 2-0 for the fifth time in those seven games when Elias snuck by Rielly at the Toronto blue-line before faking out Reimer on the breakaway goal.
Sluggish starts continue to be a problem for the Leafs.
“We've been playing from behind a lot lately and just been running out of time I guess you could say,” said Bozak. “Gotta have better starts and try and get a lead early.”
The Leafs are now 8-19-4 when they trail after a period and 11-23-4 when their opponent scores first. Bozak and Kessel scored to slice the 3-0 deficit to one, but like their failed comebacks in each of the previous four losses, it was not enough.
“There's no easy way when you're down three on the road to think that you're going to consistently come back in the hockey game,” said Carlyle.
5. JVR Accountability
Speaking after the game, James van Riemsdyk made sure to shoulder some of the blame personally for the Leafs failings. Though he had five shots and multiple opportunities on Schneider in a career-high 26 minutes, van Riemsdyk failed to score for the 10th time in the past 11 games.
“It's my job to score goals and obviously right now it's not good enough,” he said unprovoked on the subject. “We're not winning games, I'm not scoring goals, and I'll have to be better.”
1-6-0 – Leafs record in their past seven games.
7 – Consecutive games in which the Leafs allowed the first goal.
8-19-4 – Leafs record this season when trailing after the first period.
1 – Goal for James van Riemsdyk in the past 11 games.
10:00 – Ice-time for David Clarkson in his first game back to New Jersey.
26:14 – Ice-time for van Riemsdyk, a career-high.
36 – Goals for Phil Kessel, one off matching a career-high.
.889 – Save percentage for James Reimer in place of Jonathan Bernier (six appearances).
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 20.8% (T-3rd)
Season: 78.7% (28th)
Quote of the Night
“I think everyone's just got to relax a little bit and give him some breathing space because we know James is a great goaltender.”
- Nazem Kadri, on recent criticism of James Reimer.
The Leafs return home to face one of the league's top teams with the Blues visiting the ACC on Tuesday.