March 14, 2011
Almost the end of hope
By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
TORONTO - As the hope and enthusiasm provided by the late-season rally moves closer to mathematical improbability, the Leafs will painfully recall any number of points that got away throughout the long campaign.
They can pretty much start with the team that on Monday night at the Air Canada Centre put a serious dent in whatever playoff plans remain.
A 6-2 loss to the much-improved Tampa Bay Lightning finished off a season series in which the Leafs went 0-4 against the Bolts.
Even worse in the latest loss was the fact that the pluggers that did them in. It wasn’t Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis doing the damage this time, but Mattias Ritolas (with his third and fourth of the season) and Mike Lundin (with his first.)
The season scoreline on the Lightning is as ugly as it will be against any Leafs opponent this season. The four losses included two shutouts, one that saw a 3-1 lead disappear and Monday’s empty effort in a game they needed so badly.
Much like the Philadelphia Flyers, who won here last week, the Leafs were unable to take advantage of a team that arrived in town struggling. The Lightning entered the game having scored two goals or fewer in seven of their previous nine games and just one win in their previous seven.
A couple of negatives finally caught up to the Leafs, leading to trouble in this one. For starters, they gave up the first goal for a seventh consecutive game. And for another, rookie goaltender James Reimer struggled to come up with a big save. Whether weary or off his game, the magic that got the Leafs hopes up since the all-star game is starting to fade. “He looked tired,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson, who yanked Reimer after goal No. 5 and is likely to start J-S Giguere Wednesday in Carolina ... Whenever a team gets a clear shot on Reimer, more often than not they seem to favour going glove side on the rookie. Tampa’s Nate Thompson was the latest, opening the scoring with a shot high to the left of Reimer ... Reimer, by the way, has slipped well below a .900 save percentage in his past five games. The Manitoba native, who started for the 13th time in 14 games, refused to use fatigue as an explanation for his apparent struggles, however. “I could probably use that as an excuse, but I don’t feel that way. But I love (the workload). ... Former Leaf Dominic Moore made it a near blowout in the third with his 13th of the season, a career high for the Toronto native, to give Tampa a 5-2 lead ... It was a near-perfect road game for the Lightning, who stifled the Leafs with a tight-checking game. “They did a good job of standing us up and we weren’t able to get pucks deep,” said Leafs centre Tyler Bozak. Trailing by two entering the final period, the Leafs couldn’t muster a good scoring chance in the first 10 minutes.
Whenever Mike Komisarek and Brett Lebda hop over the boards for a defensive shift, the Leafs are forced to hold their breath. It was another rough night for Komisarek, who caused a turnover at the Tampa blueline leading to one goal against and on the other, couldn’t find his man in front of the net ... Wilson didn’t name names — nor did he have to — but said the letdown by the third pair has been a problem ... “We need to get more quality minutes out of our fifth and six defencemen,” Wilson said. “You can lose confidence in a hurry.” ... Part of the problem is the fatigue factor late for players like captain Dion Phaneuf, who logged 25:49 on Tuesday ... Nice individual effort by Nikolai Kulemin to score his 26th of the season and pull the Leafs to within one in the second. Kulemin nabbed the puck from Victor Hedman at the Toronto blueline and then looked off linemate Clarke MacArthur before burying it past Dwayne Roloson. That would be a career high by 11 goals for Kulemin ... Monday’s four-goal margin was the Leafs/ most lopsided loss in their past 18 games.
Bad news for the Leafs: Seven of their next nine games are on the road, starting with back-to-backs Wednesday in Raleigh and Thursday in Florida ...The Leafs don’t play Tuesday, but could probably use a Buffalo win in the game between the two teams they are chasing. The worst-case scenario, of course, could be an overtime contest between the Sabres and Hurricanes ... If there’s a vulnerable team among the Sabres, ’Canes and Rangers, schedule-wise, it might be Carolina given that 10 of their 13 remaining games are part of back-to-backs ... The Leafs will have to win a minimum of nine of their remaining 12 games to get to 88 points, the magic number that nailed down eighth place last April. And there’s a good chance that won’t be enough ... Lecavalier’s backbreaker late in the second period gave him a point in 13 of his past 14 games against the Leafs ... The Lightning are now 5-0-1 in their past six visits here.