PHILADELPHIA – Like the rest of his teammates, Carl Gunnarsson was doing what he could to remain positive after yet another loss, the seventh straight for the sinking Leafs, but it wasn't easy.
The 27-year-old wants to believe that a turnaround is still possible, that his team can salvage the season, dig out from a deepening slide and claim a second straight playoff berth. But as time ticks down and the results continue to linger in the wrong direction, that belief is tested.
"It's a struggle," he said in a near-empty visitors' dressing room at Wells Fargo Center. "I'll tell you that. We thought we had something going here tonight."
Whatever fight they mustered in a 4-2 loss to the Flyers did''t matter by the time the night was through. It was just another empty loss, another opportunity to regain ground for not.
"Overall, I didn't think that we had that bad of a night," said coach Randy Carlyle afterward, 'but we were on the wrong side of the score and that's what counts the most."
Never more evident than at this late stage in the season, the difference between winning and losing remained painfully thin. And for the Leafs it was just enough for defeat. Two power-play goals against, a few too many odd-man rushes, a bad break or two and a key mistake at the wrong time.
Claude Giroux was the benefactor of one such mistake that sealed defeat for the visitors. The Flyers captain picked off former teammate James van Riemsdyk's neutral ice pass attempt - the puck ricocheted off the skate of Scott Hartnell - and zipped a bullet beyond the glove of Jonathan Bernier.
"Right now every big scoring chance they get, I think it feels like it's going in," said Bernier afterward. "When it's not going your way, that's usually what happens."
"I thought we played pretty good," he continued. "A few mistakes that end up being goals. From the last game, obviously, I think we played a lot better."
But like their harrowing loss to the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday, one that saw them manhandled for half the game by the top team in the West, Friday's defeat in Philly counted all the same. It was just another loss at a critical point in the season.
"We worked hard," Carlyle said. "Did we work smart enough in some areas? No."
Any chance the Leafs have at resuscitation starts Saturday night in a massive showdown with the Detroit Red Wings. A victory reignites whatever belief and hope still lingers. They may have no hope of catching either the Montreal Canadiens or Tampa Bay Lightning, but sitting on near-equal ground with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Red Wings and Washington Capitals - all have 80 points, but with games in hand - a wild card position is still in play.
"Obviously, this one, it's going to be a tough one to swallow," Bernier said. "But, at the same time, we can't feel sorry for ourselves. [Saturday] is a big game and we all know that."
1. Carlyle's Approach
Carlyle has tried to push a few different buttons in midst of his team's recent slide.
"Some days, it is a little bit more harsh. Some days, it's a pat in the back. Some days it's a hug," Carlyle said on Friday morning. "Whatever it is, whatever you feel is necessary. Nobody in life feels like coming to work and being ground into the dirt everyday and that's part of the process. You've got to pick and choose when to apply pressure and when not to."
As to his preferred approach of late, Carlyle said, "It's been more reality of the situation. Just showing and trying to get an understanding that we're not that far away. But there are some areas that need to be addressed. That's as simple as I can put it. Our compete level has to go up. We haven't won enough one-on-one battles. We've given up too many odd-man rushes and breakaways. We've got to play better on the defensive side of the game."
2. Penalty Kill
The Flyers scored twice on the power play, marking the 12th time this season that the Leaf penalty kill has given up two goals in a game this season.
Vincent Lecavalier fired a laser for the first of two, a five-on-three goal that was not without some controversy. Jay McClement, taking the draw as Toronto's lone forward, was thrown out of the face-off circle, charged with knocking the puck from the hand of linesman Michel Cormier. Dion Phaneuf promptly stepped in and lost the first (and likely last) face-off of his career, Lecavalier blowing the one-timer by Bernier just three seconds later.
"That's not something that you want to happen," McClement said of the face-off incident. "I don't think [Cormier] wanted to do it either. But he explained to me that it's black and white when I knocked it out of his hand."
Scott Hartnell would add the second power-play marker, redirecting a Kimmo Timonen point shot just beyond the grasp of Bernier.
The Toronto penalty kill remains third-worst in the NHL this season.
3. Bolland's Comeback
Dave Bolland scored for the third time this season in Philadelphia and the first time since his left ankle was sliced by the skate of Zack Kassian on November 2. The 27-year-old hasn't played more than 13 minutes since he returned from the injury and he was kept right in that region against the Flyers.
"I just see that in some of the situations, he's struggled with the mobility," Carlyle said of Bolland before the 4-2 loss. "It's not sore, [but] it just doesn't have the strength there. W''re going to try to find a way to get him some more minutes. We know what kind of player he is."
4. The 18-Wheeler
Luke Schenn was there in 2012 when the Leafs collapsed and knows all too well how quickly the pressure rises in Toronto.
"Lose a couple in a row and everything magnifies that much more," he said. "You lose three in a row and people tend to get on you a little bit. All the fans and the media think that everything's falling apart. That's just the way it is over there.
"It's obviously a tough market to play in when things aren't going the way you want them to, but it's a great market when things are going well. There's always adversity in Toronto. It's never going to change. I'm sure those guys are going to get through it."
Reflecting back to the infamous 18-wheeler skid two years earlier, Schenn couldn't put his finger on just what wrong.
"There is no exact reason why. It's probably a combination of different things. I'd have to go back and look. Obviously, you're probably getting off to some tough starts in games. Special teams probably weren't as good as they need to be. At the end of the day - when I was there - it probably just came down to being outcompeted some nights. Obviously, you lose a couple in a row, confidence isn't always there. That's just the way it goes. You've got to find ways to get out of it."
5. Gardiner Offence
Just ahead of a clash with the Flyers three weeks ago, Jake Gardiner revealed his disappointment with the offence he'd put together to that point.
"I don't think my point production has been that great this year,"he said. "I'd like to improve on that."
The 23-year-old scored a goal the next night in a 4-3 overtime win, rounding up nine points in the past 11 games, including a helper on Bolland's seventh goal this season.
"I've tried to jump in the play a lot more and be an offensive threat from the blue line," he explained of his recent surge prior to the game.
Gardiner has 26 points on the year.
1-8-0 – Leafs record in the past nine games.
9 – Points in the last 11 games for Jake Gardiner.
3 – Goals by Dave Bolland in Philadelphia this season.
24:31 – Ice-time for James van Riemsdyk opposite his former team Friday, tied for the team-lead.
15 – Consecutive games without a point for David Clarkson, who has just 10 this season.
8 – Number of times the Leafs have allowed the first goal in the past nine games
4 – Seconds elapsed in the second period before van Riemsdyk scored the first Leafs goal. It was the fastest goal to start a period for the team this season.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 20.6% (4th)
Season: 78.1% (28th)
Quote of the Night
"Overall, I didn't think that we had that bad of a night, but we were on the wrong side of the score and that's what counts the most."
-Randy Carlyle, following a seventh straight loss in Philadelphia.
The Leafs return home to host to the Red Wings on Saturday night.