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Siegel: Can the Leafs avoid another late-season collapse?

Jonas Siegel, TSN 1050
3/27/2014 11:38:36 PM
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TORONTO – High above the ice, while practice took place on Thursday afternoon in Toronto, stood Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis. He watched his team work through various drills, hash out lingering points of confusion and prepare for the latest biggest game of the year - a Friday clash with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Nonis can do nothing, however, to affect the fortunes of his skidding team at this very late stage in the season, one tumbling precariously close to another late-season collapse.

"Eight games left," said Phil Kessel, shortly before departure to Philadelphia. "We've got to win some games and get in the playoffs here."

"This is desperation time," Nazem Kadri added. "We're playing for our lives, so we've got to go start acting like it."

It was exactly two years ago that the 18-wheeler of 2012 officially crashed for good. Losing for a stunning 19th time in 24 games against the Carolina Hurricanes on a late March night, the Leafs were eliminated from the postseason, the culmination of an epic unraveling that would cost Ron Wilson his job.

Can they avoid a similar and yet perhaps more stinging fate this time around?

The thought would have been almost unthinkable only two weeks earlier, but with six straight losses - all in regulation - and not a single point gained, the Leafs are indeed facing that reality. With a blink or two of the eye, they've been passed by seven teams, now trailing the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets for the final two wild card positions, and are in danger of fumbling away a second-straight trip to the postseason.

Aspirations of capturing second spot in the Atlantic Division and home-ice advantage in the first round have been replaced by simply making it outright. The shift has been stunning.

"I know right now it seems like we're at a low point, but we will come through it," said captain Dion Phaneuf, speaking after a near 90-minute practice in Toronto, his performance and subsequent absence afterward a point of much consternation just a couple days earlier. "I'm not going to stand here and say that we've played well. We haven't. We haven't won games, but there's been stretches that we've done some good things, we just haven't found a way to win a game and we're going to have to do that Friday."

The pressure to do so has never been higher. At some point, the pit of despair becomes just too deep to dig out of, the snowball too large to stop from rolling. 

That was the case for the club in 2012.

Four straight early February losses rapidly morphed into nine of 10, a souring fan-base and the sudden dismissal of Wilson. Things would get no better in the early days of Carlyle's tenure with 10 more losses in the next 14 games, including the aforementioned knockout blow on March 27. 

"There's pressure in any situation like this," said Kessel, "[but] we've just got to bounce back. If we can get a couple wins here, it would be positive for our group. We've just got to keep going then."

Fear of it all slipping away has seemingly seeped in.

Head coach Randy Carlyle observed "tenseness" in the early stages of Tuesday's loss to St. Louis, pushing his club to be more assertive against Philadelphia, currently third in the Metropolitan Division - three points ahead of Toronto.

"If you're going to stand there and you're in a street fight and you're not going to move, you're going to allow somebody to swing away, you're going to get hit," said Carlyle. "But if you move and try to avoid the hit and do what you do you're not going to get hit as many times, simple as that."

Starts have become the most obvious foe to success during the two-week slide, early and often deep deficits too much to overcome.

"So we have to move ourselves," said Carlyle. "We have to move our feet, we have to continue to move the puck effectively, we have to skate … Those are the things that we have to correct and we have to correct it for [Friday] night."

"We're starting the games terrible," Kessel said. "We're getting down a couple goals. They're out-playing us the first half of the game and then all of a sudden we wake up and we come [back] and it's just too late."

The same could be said of their playoff fortunes.

A collapse under these circumstances might pale in comparison to 2012, given their comfortable state with just weeks to go - they were up three points on the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning as recently as two weeks ago, now trailing both by a wide margin - and the heightened expectations of a club seemingly on the rise.

It's a sting they won't want to experience again.

"It snowballed on us," Phaneuf said after that season-sealing loss to Carolina two years ago. "We lost a lot of tight games and we just could not recover or find a way out of it as a group."

Will they this time around time around? The answer will come soon enough.

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