Maple Leafs mid-terms

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:51 AM ET

The post-game, raised-stick victory salutes to ACC fans didn’t last long.

Nor did the stated goal of getting six points for every five-game segment, the chatter of Phil Kessel scoring 50 or how the bulked up team wouldn’t be pushed off the puck.

But as the halfway mark of the Maple Leafs season approaches Monday in Los Angeles, the absence of playoff talk makes for a most ominous silence. For a sixth consecutive year, and third under head coach Ron Wilson, it’s an uphill climb. General manager Brian Burke was more cautious about rattling his playoff sword in the autumn, but thought a full season from Kessel and captain Dion Phaneuf, the new energy wingers Colby Armstrong and Kris Versteeg and with depth in goal and defence, that his team would be closer.

For one glorious week, they did make the NHL take notice, opening with four wins, including two in the division and one in Pittsburgh’s new rink. Even when the Leafs started to cool off, five of their losses were by a goal and Kessel was still filling the net.

But Toronto must now overcome a double-digit points deficit to make it, with four teams at present to pass in between. They hit the halfway mark on a two-game winning streak, but are still much closer to the cellar and losing another lottery first-rounder to Boston, separated only by the total collapse of the New Jersey Devils.

What happened? Well, even Wilson and the brass admit that a decent pre-season record and the 4-0 start fooled them into false security. Burke’s plan to build from the goal out hit a snag when the high-priced defence of Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin didn’t live up to its billing or the millions invested in them. The added depth of Brett Lebda and Matt Lashoff didn’t factor in, Jeff Finger’s salary had to be sacrificed to the farm, while the likes of Keith Aulie and Korbinian Holzer are not yet ready for prime time.

All that had a direct impact on goalies Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson, at a time when The Monster in particular needed positive reinforcement. With a record of 6-12-2 and a 3.13 goals against average, Gustavsson hasn’t been able to steal the Leafs enough wins, especially with Giguere’s groin problems flaring up again. The sudden emergence of James Reimer will be among the second-half intrigues surrounding the Leafs’ cage.

The forwards are hardly immune from criticism. Though Wilson eventually found the ideal complement for Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin in newcomer Clarke MacArthur, almost everyone else suffered frostbite in costly stretches. Kessel went into a deep funk, despite being allowed to keep his good pal, Tyler Bozak, as his centre.

The snark that Armstrong and Mike Brown brought to the third and fourth lines was interrupted by injuries, while Cup champion Versteeg is only now finding a comfort level.

In the interim, quick fixes were attempted, everything from promoting young Nazem Kadri and then trying him at left wing, to the latest plug job with farmhands Joey Crabb and Darryl Boyce.

But the results are almost the same as last year. After 40 games, Toronto’s record of 16-20-4 compares to 14-18-8 a season ago. Wilson has the same problems, the 23rd-ranked offence, a penalty-killing unit ranking near the bottom and on pace for another 20 one-goal losses.

There have been 49 of those close calls since Wilson became coach. Add to that a defence that has scored just seven goals.

But speaking of the two-game winning streak, just the fourth since the Canadian Thanksgiving, it should be mentioned that more than 80 points remain up for grabs in the second half. These Leafs are infamous for their late-season pushes, even if all it does in the end is worsen their draft position.

But that late-surge tradition can also be linked to pressure being relieved after the NHL trade deadline passes (this year, it’s Feb. 28).

Once more the Leafs are praying to get some winter steam behind their team and a spring train wreck in front of them in the standings.

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca

Twitter.com/sunhornby


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