Leafs suffer loss in St. Louis against Blues

Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Phil Kessel (81) handles the puck as St. Louis Blues defenseman Jay...

Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Phil Kessel (81) handles the puck as St. Louis Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester (19) defends during the first period at the Scottrade Center Dec 12, 2013, in St. Louis, MO. (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:15 PM ET

ST. LOUIS - The Maple Leafs and Blues hold the two longest current Stanley Cup droughts in the NHL.

Just a few minutes into Thursday’s game, it became clear which team has the better chance of qualifying for a chance to end it next spring.

With a murderous string of games against the Western Conference contributing to a slump of 3-9, the Leafs are nearing the danger line of a .500 record and falling from a playoff spot in the East. The balanced Blues, meanwhile, led by ex-Leaf Alex Steen’s 35 points in 30 games, hung on for a 6-3 win to stay near the top of their competitive loop.

A 3-0 pit that drove James Reimer from the net before the first period ended, un-did the good work the Leafs exhibited the night before against Los Angeles. Now they face another imposing task on Saturday, with Stanley Cup champion Chicago swaggering into the Air Canada Centre.

“This is a tough stretch for us right now, but also a good test,” said centre Jay McClement before the game.

But Western teams are taking that measuring stick and using it to beat the tar out of Toronto most nights. Overall, the Leafs can’t generate even-strength goals beyond their first line and struggle to defend.

“We got out of focus and we have to get back,” McClement added. “That (the close loss to the Kings) is definitely the kind of game we have to get back to. We’re all at a loss as to why we can’t do that for a full game more often.”

Not only did the Leafs waste some tremendous goalkeeping from Reimer and Jonathan Bernier the past few weeks, both men are feeling the strain. Reimer was abandoned on Thursday, but also lost his stick on a key goal. Then, Bernier gave up two, including Steen’s 22nd as he shadows Alex Ovechkin for the NHL lead.

Where to start dissecting the first-period fizzle? It was understandable the Leafs would be flat after the way the Kings’ game ended, as well as the travel, lack of a morning skate and a second game without workhorse defenceman Dion Phaneuf. But they couldn’t force any pucks past the Blues pickets at the start and St. Louis had the run of the rink at the other end.

Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner showed their green side again against the Blues’ best line, giving Steen time to find David Backes for a snap over Reimer’s glove. With Phaneuf returning on Saturday from his suspension, Rielly could be bound for Canada’s world junior camp.

Reimer has had trouble in the past hanging on to his paddle and never gets burned, but Thursday was different. He lost it in a far corner of the Scottrade Center after stabbing at a dump in. Though the Leafs got the puck out briefly, he decided not to risk retrieving it before the Blues came back with numbers. He did stop Jaden Schwartz’s first attempt, but with nothing to protect the five-hole, the rebound went through.

In the interim, Phaneuf’s partner Carl Gunnarsson took a heavy shot from a Blues point man in his upper body and didn’t finish the period, while Reimer ended up slinking down the runway after Derek Roy scored another easy one. Gunnarsson returned to start the middle period, but the Mark Fraser-Paul Ranger tandem wasn’t up to the task of slowing the Blues and the duo was out of position when Stewart scored again.

Toronto had a brief window to get back in the game, when Nazem Kadri put a weak one through Brian Elliott for his 10th of the year and the Leafs went right to a power play. But St. Louis held fast and David Clarkson took an over-aggressive head shot minor to disrupt the rally. The Blues hit the last of their four posts/crossbars, keeping their three-goal lead into the third, where Steen struck again before Nikolai Kulemin and James van Riemsdyk put a scare into the home team with four minutes to play. Backes eventually sealed it with an empty netter.

Clarkson did come close on a couple of occasions around Elliott and drew Roman Polak into a lively bout at the end of the second, but was also called for a post-whistle slash in the third. At least he’s showing some passion as the Leafs sleep-walk through December.


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