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Siegel: Leafs try to loosen up, shake ills of late season slide

Jonas Siegel
3/25/2014 9:42:38 AM
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TORONTO - By Monday morning - hours after an increasingly perilous skid hit five - more than a few members of the wobbling Maple Leafs were on the third floor of the Air Canada Centre, playing some basketball on the practice court of the neighbouring Toronto Raptors.

"I think some guys just wanted to go shoot some hoops and loosen up," said captain Dion Phaneuf on a rest day for most of his teammates.

The Leafs are doing what they can to loosen up and shake the ills of a losing streak that has them tumbling closer and closer to another late season collapse and early spring exit. In fine position as recently as two weeks ago - second in the Atlantic following a statement win in L.A. - they are now simply clinging to the final wild card position in the East with a grueling test against St. Louis ahead on Tuesday night.

"No one's happy with what's gone on," said Phaneuf, "but it's reality. We have got to come [Tuesday] prepared and ready to go."

Just as the highs of a win streak are exaggerated so too are the lows of a losing slide. Toronto has lost five straight, all close games and all with a series of consistent and untimely trends.

First has been the sluggish starts and inability to score the game's first goal. The Leafs have a .714 winning percentage this season when they score first, a .289 mark when they don't. They've given up that valued first goal in seven straight games, falling behind by two or more in five of the seven (six losses).

And while they've improbably rallied to tie or pull within one in each of the five losses - even leading briefly against Tampa - the uphill climb has ultimately proven too steep to overcome.

"The one issue for us, more than anything, is that we seem to have been putting ourselves in the position of clawing back into games," head coach Randy Carlyle observed. "And you won't have success if you continually have to do that."

"We've played from behind too often," Phaneuf concurred. "When we have been coming from behind that's when we've been attacking more than from the start. When you do get down you play with more desperation. We have to find a way to play with that desperation right from the get-go."

Not helping matters, though certainly not the singular point of blame, has been the goaltending. His confidence simply sunk at this point, James Reimer has not provided anywhere near the top-tier caliber of goaltending that Jonathan Bernier delivered before his injury, the kind of elite nightly theatrics the defensively-inept Leafs require to win.
 
Consider Bernier's 8-2-2 record and .947 save percentage this season when facing 40 shots as reminders of that ability to perform under heavy strain.

Reimer, meanwhile, has a disastrous .871 save percentage in five starts in place of Bernier.

Nursing the first groin injury of his career, Bernier was on the ice again Monday afternoon, but wasn't sure if he'd be available to return against the Blues. "It hurts to see your team lose," he said, "but at the same time it's one of those injuries [where] you've got to take time. Don't want to rush and then you're out for another four or five games after."

Bernier said his readiness would be determined by the team's medical staff, but said he'd know for himself when he was able to make "a split save or that I can make that stretch save and not think about it I guess."

Update: Bernier was the projected starter on Tuesday morning.

Without him, Carlyle would be faced with difficult question in goal for a tough tilt against the best team in the West. Start Reimer for the sixth consecutive game despite his struggles or hand the net to Drew MacIntyre, the 30-year-old who has yet to start an NHL game.

While perhaps difficult to envision Carlyle turning back to Reimer yet again, consider that under similarly challenging circumstance - two sets of back-to-backs in the past week - he went with the struggling former no. 1 each and every time. The tried and tested product, however unstable at the moment, may be more appealing than the unknown.

Reimer was pulled for MacIntyre in the team's fifth straight loss on Sunday night.

"What happened last game, surely you take that into consideration, but the most important thing is that the individual we choose to represent us at that position tomorrow night we feel confident he can get the job done," said Carlyle.

Beyond goaltending are the series of game-changing mistakes and breakdowns that have often left Reimer on an island all his own, left to sink or swim in an unforgiving crease. Bernier bailed out those mistakes more often than not. Reimer has not.

There was Troy Brouwer left all by his lonesome in the slot during the first loss in Washington. There were two Gustav Nyquist breakaway goals in Detroit. It was three times open for Steven Stamkos in Toronto. There was the Phil Kessel neutral zone giveaway which sprung Max Pacioretty against Montreal, a Rene Bourque breakaway coming shortly after. And most recently, a bad line change and pinch that sparked an odd-man rush goal from Damien Brunner and then later another breakaway, this time from Patrik Elias.

"What we have to do is we have to limit our mistakes," said Carlyle. "We're making too many of them that are costing us in the hockey games."

Additionally, the Leafs have been unable to find much offence beyond their top line. Without the likes of Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, and Tyler Bozak scoring two or three a night, they've simply not produced enough to overshadow other faults as was often the case in victories earlier this season.

"There's still lots of hockey to be played," Phaneuf said. "There's lots of points that are available for us. We obviously are not happy about what has happened, but what's happened has happened. There's no going back to yesterday or three days ago or a week ago. Right now our focus is on St. Louis and coming out and playing the way that we can.

"We've slid far enough. We've got to grab some traction here and regroup with a big win."

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