Those who figure the Maple Leafs really don’t need much tinkering for 2010-11 might want to pause for thought.
The Leafs had won three in a row before they stepped on the ice at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night against the Florida Panthers, and a few hours later, dreams of a fourth consecutive win were dead with a 4-1 loss.
Former Leafs goalie Scott Clemmensen made 42 saves, though he was not tested much, and the Panthers, with three rookie defencemen, managed to do enough to cling to their tiny playoff hopes.
But let’s be clear. The Leafs, the youngest team in the National Hockey League with an average age of 26.7 years, might be playing for jobs next season, but this is garbage time in the NHL for clubs that don’t have a playoff aspirations. Put this group in a pressure-packed situation where a playoff berth is on the line and the wins might not have come as steadily. And over 82 games? This team is too thin, especially up front.
It’s fine to commend the Leafs for their youthful exuberance when it is warranted, but that same inexperience can get them into trouble.
That’s what happened not quite midway through the first period, when John Mitchell and Luke Schenn conspired to help give the visitors a 1-0 lead.
Mitchell got control of the puck inside the Leafs blue line, but rather than get it out of harm’s way by going up the boards, tried a two-foot pass to an unsuspecting Schenn. David Booth pounced on the blunder, stripping Schenn of the puck and walked in on Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who didn’t move when Booth ripped a shot over his catching glove.
“There are a lot of young guys, and this is the NHL, so you have to do it consistently,” Mitchell said. “That’s a learning curve for younger players, that you have to bring it every night, and do the same things that bring you victories in other games.”
Fredrik Sjostrom, on his first goal as a Leaf, broke Clemmensen’s bid for a shutout late in the game.
David Booth, who missed 45 games with a concussion after he was blindsided by Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards, scored two goals. Michael Frolik and Jason Garrison, into an empty net, also scored for the Panthers.
As a whole, the Leafs, now 0-30-7 when trailing after two periods, showed zero enthusiasm for getting their noses dirty, and Clemmensen had an easy time with shots from the perimeter.
“I wish I could say something and we would never lose, okay?” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “You’re a little bit off, and with us, it shows. Our top line (Tyler Bozak between Phil Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin) was not very good. All the reading about themselves, in the papers about how great they are, and they’re not quite sharp enough and this happens. It is a good lesson learned for a lot of our guys.”
Clemmensen positionally was sound and kept most rebounds under control, making 19 saves in the first period.
Kessel had the juiciest opportunity when he was sent on a breakaway by Francois Beauchemin. But when Kessel started to lose control of a suddenly bouncing puck, Clemmensen calmly poked it away, killing the chance.
“We talked before the game and were aware these were important points, but to be honest, we are last in the conference,” Giguere said. “So taking the foot off the pedal ... we need to play a hard 60 minutes against any team.”