Just call it the sports world’s remake of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Tonight the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Carolina Hurricane.
This is like the Bad News Bears — before they stopped fielding baseballs with their shins — on ice skates.
The Hurricane have won three games on the road all year. The Leafs have won twice in the last 10 games. These teams are in a feverish battle for last place and they’ve gotten there on merit.
Ron Wilson had a lot of expectations last autumn. Ending up cast in the role of Inspector Clouseau was not one of them. But here he is at the helm of a team that can’t score and doesn’t defend. When the big news at practice is the potential return of defenceman Carl Gunnarsson, an NHL veteran of eight games, and the possible call-up of Tyler Bosak from the Marlies in an effort to find someone who can find the back of the net without a GPS, it can’t be a good thing.
This might be a matchup nobody deserves to win. But, for Leafs general manager Brian Burke it might be as big a game as his team plays. “Eh, Brian,” yelled a fan at the recent Winter Classic in Boston, “tanks fer Taylor Hall”. The Bruins get Toronto’s pick in the draft and a loss tonight brings a potential No. 1 choice that much closer to a Bruin uniform.
“We really need the points. It’s a huge game for us,” said Leafs’ Niklas Hagman yesterday. Huge, and not just for the aforementioned reason. The Leafs are teetering on emotional armagedeon and need some success to bolster a sagging confidence.
The problem isn’t just Phil Kessel’s failure to score more than one goal in 12 games. This is a team that can’t kill penalties, has allowed more goals than any other NHL team and is backed by inconsistent goaltending. Rickard Wallin is a well-spoken young man you’d be pleased to see your daughter bring home but that doesn’t excuse the fact he’s gone 34 games without so much as one goal. “I’m not the kind of guy that can take over a game like a Crosby or Kessel,” said Wallin, “(but) I’ve played enough high-level hockey to know I can play with these guys.” Maybe. But there has been little hard evidence.
Hagman is the team’s leading goal scorer with 16 — yet he has just two in his last 15 games and only three since Nov. 30. “It’s been a little weird,” he said.
Yesterday, Wilson went back to basics working on the powerplay, penalty killing and blocking shots. But the season is half done. It’s not like these guys don’t know what they have to do so much as that they won’t do it, can’t do it — or simply have stopped believing they can do it.
Hagman agreed stress is showing. “It could be. When you look at the chances Phil has had if he were given 10 chances, he’d put in eight of those but now it seems like a stick comes from nowhere and stops it. This game is a lot more fun when you’re relaxed. When you’re not you really have to battle through it.
“When you have a lot of games like we’ve had in December and January it’s tough on your body but it is also tough mentally. You get one bad game and carry it into the next game. Mentally if you’re down it affects you physically; your body doesn’t feel good, you feel tired, slow; but when your head is feeling good, when it seems sunny all the time even if you’re dead tired you are able to find the energy.”
Right now the Leafs look tired. And dead.
“When you have confidence you feel like you can do anything,” said Hagman, “when you don’t ...” The thought is left uncompleted. You know, like a Leafs’ scoring chance.