TORONTO – The bubble has just about burst and whatever remained of the Maple Leafs sinking playoff hopes is probably just on life support.
A game they had to have Saturday fell apart like so many others during a losing skid that now numbers eight games. And a season, promising as recently as two weeks ago, has unraveled into a collapse that mirrors, if not eclipses, the infamous 18-wheeler of 2012.
"I can't describe it right now," said a befuddled Joffrey Lupul following a 4-2 loss to Detroit, the Red Wings jumping two points ahead of the Leafs with two games still in hand. "This is probably the first time, after this game, that things are probably looking a little bleak for us."
The scene was cheery in the visitors' dressing room at Staples Center in Los Angeles after a resilient win over the Kings on March 13. The Leafs had stomped through the deathly California triangle with a pair of victories and had their sights set on claiming second spot in the Atlantic Division, a berth in the postseason all but assumed following their 15th win in a remarkable stretch of 22 games.
They haven't gotten a point since, losing eight straight in regulation for the first time in more than 25 years.
It was more of the same in defeat against the Red Wings, still playing without their two best players in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
There was the stunning and all too familiar inconsistency. At once energetic, sharp and urgent in the opening period, the Leafs sputtered with errors in the second, spewing three goals in less than eight minutes. Troubling defensive breakdowns continued in that middle period meltdown. Detroit approached double-figures in odd-man opportunities for the evening, scoring three of their four goals in such situations, including two in that disastrous eight-minute stretch.
"It's a very tough time," Dion Phaneuf said after the defeat, the third to the Red Wings this season. "This loss is the most disappointing out of the eight. There's no hiding that."
Perplexed Leafs like Phaneuf were struggling to comprehend how it could unravel so quickly, how a season filled with so much promise could deteriorate in a manner of a couple weeks.
"Sometimes, it's just been poor execution," Lupul said. "Sometimes, it's been defensive lapses. Other times, the other team's played really well, but it's our job to win hockey games and we haven't been able to do it."
Technically still alive, the Leafs would need to find an unbelievable and unlikely winning streak to revive their playoff hopes along with plenty of help from the likes of Columbus, Detroit, and even Washington. Up three points on Montreal after that win in L.A., Toronto now trails the Habs by 13, an incredible and hurried reversal rarely seen.
"We went from a position where we were in control of our own destiny now to sitting at home cheering against other teams," Lupul said. "That part of it's very frustrating."
And now, or perhaps very soon, come the difficult questions for general manager Dave Nonis and his management team.
What should the future hold for head coach Randy Carlyle? How much of what took place this season falls on his shoulders? Are the team's constant defensive failings a matter of coaching or are certain segments of the roster simply too flawed? How much of the collapse, for that matter, is the roster? Is it both the coaching staff and roster that need adjusting? Does a core featuring Kessel, van Riemsdyk, Lupul, Phaneuf, Kadri, Clarkson, Bernier and Rielly need serious tweaking? Are these the foundations of a team that can eventually win the ultimate prize? Where and what improvements can be attained? Where does the club go from here?
A collapse of this magnitude should throw everyone and everything into question.
Ron Wilson got the axe during the 2012 meltdown with only minor roster adjustments that summer (Luke Schenn notably traded). Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Matt Frattin were among the jettisoned following the Game 7 unraveling last spring. What comes next this time around?
Six games do still remain, but hope has been drained from these Leafs and a once (and perhaps still) bright future has suddenly become muddled with questions.
The bubble has just about burst.
"These are the tough days in sports when you don't get the job done," said Carlyle.
1. Nothing Quite Like This
Formerly with the mostly dominant Kings, Jonathan Bernier said he'd never been through something quite like this.
"Probably not," Bernier said. "Having a long losing streak like that, especially close to the end of the season, never happened to me before."
Others like Cody Franson were forced to reflect on the horrors of 2012, which saw the Leafs lose 19 of 24 games en route to another absence from the postseason.
"I don't think it brings back memories of that," he said. "We haven't thought about that stretch back then. I thought we've come out with a lot of good efforts and they're ending up on the wrong side of the stick. It's not like we're playing bad hockey, it's just one of those things where every mistake that we do make ends up [in the net]."
"The try is there, [but] we didn't get the job done," said Lupul. "We have to deal with that now."
Losers in nine of the past 10, the Leafs lost 10 of 11 before Wilson was dismissed in March of 2012.
2. Bernier Back-to-Back
Probably still not at 100 per cent, Bernier nonetheless started both ends of a back-to-back for just the second time in his NHL career. Facing a slew of odd-man rush opportunities, the 25-year-old gave up four goals for the third consecutive game.
"I felt really good tonight," he said.
Darren Helm scored three of the four on Bernier. The first saw him pick off Jake Gardiner at the offensive blue-line shorthanded before eventually outmaneuvering Toronto's power-play unit for a backhand marker. Helm would add a second on a redirection - he was all alone in front - the third and final dagger on a breakaway.
Gustav Nyquist notched the other Detroit goal, beating Bernier five-hole after Johan Franzen's shot attempt ricocheted off the skate of Phaneuf moving in reverse.
In three starts upon returning a groin injury that kept him out five games, Bernier has allowed 12 goals on 105 shots for an off-kilter .886 save percentage. Considering his earlier theatrics this season, it's worth wondering just how healthy he really is.
3. Kadri Benched
Nazem Kadri was on the ice for back-to-back goals on consecutive shifts in the middle frame and was eventually benched for it. The 23-year-old was casual on the back-check on the sequence that led to the second Wings goal from Nyquist, out-muscled by Joakim Andersson in a one-on-one battle that resulted in the third marker from Helm.
Kadri began the third frame on the fourth line, joined by Jay McClement and Troy Bodie. He totaled just four shifts and less than four minutes in the period, finishing with just over 14 minutes on the evening.
The London, Ontario native has just one goal and four points in the past 11 games.
4. Kessel 40-Goal Chase
Rightfully lost in the Leafs collapse, but still a point of intrigue, is Phil Kessel's chase for 40 goals. The 26-year-old posted a career-high of 37 back in the 2011-12 season, but remains stuck on 36 this year with just six games to play.
The team's leading scorer finished March with four goals and 10 points in 15 games.
Stung on the foot by a James van Riemsdyk pass attempt in the second frame, Kessel was seen limping around the underbelly of the ACC afterward. Carlyle had no update on his status.
5. Gardiner Revival
With two assists in defeat on Saturday, Jake Gardiner finished March with 11 points and a share of the team lead (Tyler Bozak). The 23-year-old is up to 28 points on the year, third on the defence behind Dion Phaneuf (31) and Cody Franson (30).
He led the Leafs with more than 23 minutes on Saturday.
Franson, who scored the first Toronto goal, set a career-high with his 30th point of the year, eclipsing the 29 he posted last season.
1-9-0 – Leafs record in the past 10 games.
11 – Points in the past 12 games for Jake Gardiner.
30 – Points this season for Cody Franson, a new career-high.
.886 – Save percentage for Jonathan Bernier in three starts after return from a groin injury.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 20.4% (6th)
Season: 78.4 (28th)
Quote of the Night
"I can't describe it right now. This is probably the first time after this game that things are probably looking a little bleak for us."
-Joffrey Lupul, following the loss to Detroit.
Calgary visits the ACC on Tuesday evening.