Time is running out for Leafs
Wilson's club has plenty to fix and precious few games remaining to do so
STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency
|Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf fights with Devils forward David Clarkson at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont., Feb. 21, 2012. (MARK BLINCH/Reuters)
TORONTO - The calamity that has become the Toronto Maple Leafs is not only about a deficiency in goal.
That’s just one problem. A problem that isn’t being solved in a competition in which both Leafs goalies are losing the starting job to no one.
There is a quarter season to play and now so much to doubt. The goaltending, spotty, inconsistent, isn’t good enough. The Leafs’ defensive zone coverages often border on the confusing and if not that, the lacklustre. The commitment from Toronto forwards to play in their own zone is shift to shift, moment to moment and equally troubling.
And so much of this brings further heat — the spotlight if you want to call it that — on coach Ron Wilson, the conductor of this out of tune orchestra. His team, four years in, still doesn’t know how to or care to play and compete hard enough without the puck. His team, way too often, looks lost in its own end of the ice, bad reads, bad coverages, wrong place, wrong time.
Then it circles back to goaltending — and the cycle of Leafs misfortune continues at the absolute worst time of the National Hockey League season.
Tuesday was Jonas Gustavsson’s night to start. He inherited the job by acclamation. James Reimer played lousy in Edmonton and followed it up by playing worse in Vancouver. The baton was passed to Gustavsson against the New Jersey Devils for the start of the four-game homestand.
Captain Dion Phaneuf made a dreadful read on New Jersey’s first goal.
Gustavsson let in a weak David Clarkson shot to make it 2-0.
The Leafs appeared to be done before the first period was over — but if there’s been one constant in this scrambly season it is that this a team of many parts, not all of them going in the right direction, doesn’t stop working.
They came back from 2-0. Should have been down 3-1 in the second period when pending free agent Zach Parise missed an easy empty net. Instead, Clarke MacArthur took advantage of a play that began with Mikhail Grabovski preventing a Devils clearing shot, and feeding Nik Kulemin who fed MacArthur for a rather nifty tying goal.
The thing about goaltending is — and nobody did this better than Grant Fuhr — timing is everything. The score doesn’t matter as much as the win does. Fuhr had this way of letting in bad goals and making the saves when the game was on the line with the great Edmonton Oilers teams. There was a little of that in Gustavsson — weak goals and big saves — and then a horrible ending in overtime.
A goal that sent Gustavsson speeding off the ice, and his rather stunned teammates let him leave alone. At times, they had the done that on the ice, leaving him alone. But the winning goal was, no matter how you slice it, minor league.
Somebody named Mark Fayne, one of those New Jersey cheap half-a-million- dollar defenceman, fired a shot that Tyler Bozak tipped and looked like it was bouncing wide of the Toronto net. While on his knees, Gustavsson came out to play the puck and instead misplayed the bouncing disk going wide into the winning score in overtime. (This came after Bozak had made a tremendous play on the tying goal with 43.5 seconds left in the third period)
The overtime winner came just seconds after Jake Gardiner had hit the cross bar seconds earlier.
The final score on Gustavsson: Three questionable goals against, three or four tremendous saves in the final period, especially stopping an Ilya Kovalchuk breakaway, some good, too much bad, and terrible timing. And that’s something this Leafs team is far too frail to live with.
The Leafs need better goaltending — but it may not matter if they can’t play better in front of Gustavsson or Reimer. Brian Burke has been on record as saying he doesn’t want a team that can finish eighth and get “their ass kicked” in the first round of the playoffs. But that is what he has right now. And a trade may not be able to change even that.
The Leafs were fortunate to get a point Tuesday night, just as fortunate that the Winnipeg Jets couldn’t hold a lead at home against the Philadelphia Flyers. On Monday night, Washington lost to Carolina. The scoreboard histrionics around the league has been kind to the Leafs. Now it’s about time, it’s getting to overtime really, for the Leafs to take advantage of the Eastern Conference wreckage around them.
There is much for Ron WIlson to fix and little time to get it done. Little time for the Leafs — and their coach.