Leafs look to last season
Lance Hornby, QMI Agency
|Toronto Maple Leafs players and coaches watch play in the final minute of their NHL hockey game in Toronto November 5, 2011. (REUTERS/Fred Thornhill)
While the rest of North America turned clocks back an hour on Sunday, the Maple Leafs should have reversed a few months.
Their flirtation with fire-
wagon hockey, fun while it lasted, shouldn’t be their chosen path for the remaining 68 games on the schedule. Not with James Reimer out indefinitely and the Jonas Gustavsson-Ben Scrivens tandem sorting itself. Not when their defensive play began to spout leaks the past two games. And certainly not with the league’s worst penalty-killing numbers.
When they had sustained success in the second half of 2010-11, it was down to Reimer, proper division of labour and a lot of players doing yeomen tasks.
“Last year we started to find some success with a simple game,” coach Ron Wilson recalled after Saturday’s sobering 7-0 loss to Boston. “Now we’re reading the papers and we’re this fancy, dancy team. You can’t play the Bruins like that.”
The blowout beating sets up an interesting week for the Leafs, who were knocked from first place overall. The improving Florida Panthers, one of the few teams with a longer playoff hiatus than Toronto, are here Tuesday, the Leafs make a rare trip to St. Louis Thursday and then it’s the Hall of Fame Game Saturday against Ottawa. Having not beaten a Northeast team in regulation the past four tries (0-3-1), the Senators will be their biggest challenge, but they’d prefer that not come attached to a losing streak.
“When you’re trying to get in playoffs, every game is important,” winger Joey Crabb reminded everyone. “Any team can take two points from you and we’re not above looking past anybody.
“Good teams, first-place-overall teams, can do it all, they’re good offensively and defensively. We’ve shown we have offence, but we need to bring up our defensive side. And a lot of what we had last year was chemistry. Any good team I’ve been on has great character and this team has it now.”
After trying college scoring whiz Matt Frattin on the third line, the Leafs went to last year’s playbook and called up the crash ’n’ bang Crabb. Even he caught the scoring fever with a couple to trigger road wins against New Jersey and Columbus. But big picture, the Leafs depend on Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski to earn their cheques with goals. And any time Nikolai Kulemin and Tim Connolly want to start producing, they’re more than welcome. Kulemin looked like he had more jump on Saturday despite the awful result, but with two goals to date, he’s falling behind last year’s pace.
“We’ve had our best players be our best, night in and night out, so I’m not expecting the third and fourth line to carry the load on a night like this,” Wilson said Saturday. “We all have to carry it and we didn’t.”
The Leafs have no update on Reimer, who enters his third week of inaction after getting rammed in the head by Montreal’s Brian Gionta in an accidental crease collision. He was close to starting Oct. 27 in New York, again Thursday in Columbus, but mystery complications arose and the Leafs’ 9-3-1 start reduced the need to rush him back. The No. 1 job is open, but Wilson should give Scrivens another shot at home, presumably with the team playing better in front of the rookie than Saturday.
“It was kind of funny how every mistake we made ended up in the net,” Wilson said. “(Boston) only had 20 shots. In terms of limiting opportunities, we actually played well at times. Yet we’d make a real mental mistake, exposing the puck in the middle. Our defence really had trouble in front, defending and boxing out.
“The first period wasn’t bad, but we went out for the second sound asleep, made two major blunders in (eight seconds) and we’re down three. We need to dig in and keep it simple. We started looking for home runs and having defencemen getting caught jumping in the play.”
And there may be such a thing as a good 7-0 spanking.
“It’s probably better to go through a game like this now,” Wilson conceded. “If we lose 2-1 or 3-2, it would be ‘oh, we were just a shot away,’ but we weren’t anything close to that.”