November could make or break Leafs

Over the next couple of weeks, we’re about to find out if the Toronto Maple Leafs can avoid last...

Over the next couple of weeks, we’re about to find out if the Toronto Maple Leafs can avoid last year's mess. (VERONICA HENRI/QMI Agency)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:16 AM ET

TORONTO - Almost from the moment the last one ended, the Leafs vowed they won’t have another November to remember for all the wrong reasons.

From management, to the coaching staff on down to the players, the pain of last year’s mess lingered right until the end of the 2010-11 campaign when a spirited late surge fell short, mostly because of the disaster of the second month.

At the start of this season, the Leafs made it clear their short-term goal was to avoid such a momentum-crusher. Over the next couple of weeks, we’re about to find out if they are up to the task.

A dodgy recent run in which the Leafs have dropped three of their past four, a stretch in which they have been out-scored 19-6, has undone some of that swift October start that vaulted the Leafs to the top of the NHL standings — albeit for less than 48 hours.

With four games in the next six nights and five in the next eight, starting with Tuesday’s home date against the Phoenix Coyotes, coach Ron Wilson’s team will learn a lot about themselves and whether they can position themselves for a serious playoff push.

On one hand, it’s too early to panic about the fortunes of a team that, prior to Monday’s action, was still in first place in the Northeast Division. On the other, blowout losses to Boston and Florida over the past 10 days have exposed some flaws. By the time Saturday comes around, they will hit the 20-game mark, a key measuring point in any season.

“We haven’t played well the last couple of games,” Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson said following Monday’s practice at the Mastercard Centre. “But we’ve just got to show to ourselves and everyone else that we can bounce back.”

The inability to do that a year ago, of course, put the Leafs in a deep hole that even a strong effort from January on couldn’t overcome. In 13 games last November, the Leafs managed just nine points, fast-tracking their tumble to the bottom of the standings.

It’s tough to imagine this November being as bad, but in the six games so far, they’ve accumulated a measly five points. And the next three nights, anyway, pose some significant challenges in the first week this season that the Leafs will face nothing but playoff teams from last spring.

In the Coyotes, the difficulty comes from a team that plays rigid, disciplined defence under coach Dave Tippett and is 4-1-1 on the road this season. Thursday in Nashville, it’s the Predators and their own particular brand of stout defence. And back home on Saturday, it’s against one of the Eastern Conference’s best, Washington.

The most pressing problem heading into those three contests is getting offensive production from a line — any line — that doesn’t include Phil Kessel or Joffrey Lupul. In the last four games, the Leafs haven’t got a goal from a forward not on that top unit.

To that end, the Nik Kulemin-Mikhail Grabovski-Clarke MacArthur threesome is feeling the most heat lately. Kulemin in particular, is the current flashpoint for frustration having gone 10 games without a goal and not registering a shot on goal in Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators.

“(Kulemin) is at the point where I think the net is the size of this trash can,” MacArthur said. “I have been through that. The chances he has had and missed, it is not from a lack of effort, it is not like he does not want to score, he wants it bad, and that is almost worse.

“It’s an ongoing battle to be a goal-scorer every year in this league. We’re in a spot where I feel a little panic and that’s a good thing because we’re at the top of the leaderboard.”

While not ready to break up the line completely just yet, Wilson said he won’t be shy to juggle things in-game if the struggles continue. With Tim Connolly likely to return to the lineup later this week, at least another productive option is not far away.

“My patience with some lines is wearing thin, so you’ve got to shuffle the deck a little quicker if it’s not working,” Wilson said Monday.

As for what has clearly been established as the second line, Wilson has instructed last season’s most productive unit to go back to the most basic of hockey strategies: Shoot the puck.

“They’ve just got to play their game relaxed,” Wilson said. “They’ve got to find more ways of getting more pucks to the net rather than overpassing it. That’s what we talk about and show them on video, scenes from when they were going really well last year as to some of the games they’ve had this year when they’ve over passed.

“Think about (MacArthur). Ten days ago, every time he got the puck he was using his speed, driving wide and pounding the puck at the net and they found a way to go in. He’s got to get back to doing that.”

The team has more worries than just the search for the now overused phrase “secondary scoring.” Stability in net, would be nice, especially since there is no indication of when James Reimer might return. And most recently, anyway, to continue to use the speed game that served them so well early on for a full 60 minutes.

“Our special teams are starting to come around but it’s funny in our league,” Wilson said. “You have bad special teams and you are winning, then your special teams start turning around and you start to play well and you don’t score five-on-five.

“We’ve got to try to be consistent in all areas of the game.”

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/longleysunsport


Videos

Photos