April 18 2013 08:57PM
Graig Abel/NHL Interactive
"Just about every astute hockey man that I have ever spoken with talking about losing streaks says: 'Sometimes you win a game or two that you should not have, and your bad habits are overcome by goaltending or a couple of breaks. And then all of a sudden those bad habits come to the fruition or to the fore, and you're in a little bit of trouble.'"
-Joe Bowen, sometime during the third period.
Let's be clear. It would be intellectually dishonest to suggest that the Toronto Maple Leafs of Games 1-through-41 are the same team that we've seen in Games 42, 43 and 44. They've not looked good, and everybody can agree that the win against New Jersey was a poor performance overcome by, as Bowen would say "goaltending or a couple of breaks".
The Leafs got a good early performance from James Reimer, who stopped four pucks on a 5-on-3. Goaltending. Joffrey Lupul danced around Matt Carkner. One bounce. Tyler Bozak fed a no-look pass right onto Cody Franson's tape. Two bounces. All of a sudden it was 2-0 Toronto, despite the Leafs being out-shot 4-2 and out-chanced 5-2.
By the bad habits caught up. Somebody will frame this game as having a "turning point". Maybe the New York Islanders players will credit the two fights, or an inspirational performance from the franchise player John Tavares in the latter half of the first. The real answer is that the Leafs were never meant to be up 2-0, and their lucky after seven minutes ran out.
Leafs lose, 5-3. They will still make the playoffs.
Sure, it may be a time to bite some nails in Toronto. After having a chance to clinch Tuesday with a win and a Winnipeg loss, the Leafs went down 5-1 and the Jets beat Tampa Bay in a shootout. Thursday, the Leafs again had a chance to clinch a spot on the same circumstances. Again, the Jets won and the Leafs lost. On Saturday... third time is the charm, surely. The Jets play the Islanders in the afternoon, so we'll know by gametime whether the Leafs can clinch with a win on national TV.
It's unfortunate that the Leafs took until Game 42, 43 and 44 to look this bad. I don't think they're a great team that's deserved each of the 24 wins they've had on the season. I thought that they'd be competing for a playoff spot but being unfortunate enough to be outside the bubble rather than inside. But the team kept getting hilariously-high shooting percentages. When Matt Frattin got hurt, Nazem Kadri began dominating. When Nazem Kadri stopped dominating, Joffrey Lupul returned. Kadri kept going. Then Lupul got hurt, Kadri stopped dominating, and the first line became unstoppable.
Why it's unfortunate that the Leafs have taken until now to play their worst string of games on the season is that three points from clinching, it's put the seed of doubt in Maple Leafs fans who have been through decisively worse with this team in their lifetimes. But tomorrow morning if you're a Leaf fan, you'll wake up and the Maple Leafs will be in fifth place with four games to go. Regardless of how they've played, you take that team if I told you existed at the start of the season.
Still… that's not a realistic way to go through life. What the hell happened?
-It's too easy to say that the team came out flat. Also, not entirely truthful. The Leafs got some good possession right off the opening faceoff with Nazem Kadri going head-to-head against John Tavares. They weren't able to work the puck inside for a good shot and the Islanders opened up the game once they cleared the puck.
-What normally happens when a team is kept in the zone for an elongated shift like that is once the puck is moved out to centre, the defending team dumps the puck in and changes. But that didn't quite happen. Lubomir Visnovsky recovered a loose puck and dumped it in off of Brad Boyes, but rather than go to the bench, Boyes actually goes to follow it in:
-I'm not a tactical analyst, but either Boyes, or Matt Moulson on the other side, is the responsibility of Kadri, who can't changed because two Islanders are in pursuit of the puck trying to forecheck early on in the game. A tired Kadri botches this easy pass to Clarke MacArthur:
-The puck ends up somewhere other than the stick of MacArthur and he ends up having to dump the puck in. Now, bringing the puck in on a rush will generate more shots and scoring chances than dumping the puck in, but MacArthur is forced into the safe play. Nabokov is a pretty good puck-mover so the Islanders are able to complete their line change while preventing the Leafs from actually recovering the puck.
-So what happens next? Well, the speed line for the Isles comes on, or rather I call them the speed line because they have Frans Nielsen. He plays with Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo and those have been the main checkers for the Islanders so far this season. They create a defensive zone turnover, a neutral zone turnover, Okposo is able to bring in the puck and establish possession. From there, a tired Clarke MacArthur can't corral another loose puck at the blue line, and Mark Fraser is forced to take a penalty after MacArthur can't slow down Josh Bailey and Frans Nielsen:
-But I'm probably completely off. Just seemed that that early pressure kept the Leafs one man behind on line changes because the Islanders won an early puck battle. The Leafs took the penalty, gave up five chances if you include the 5-on-3, and were dominated except for the times Matt Carkner happened to be on the ice for the Islanders.
-Timeonice.com doesn't work properly tonight, but I can assure you that Jake Gardiner and Dion Phaneuf took the primary matchup at even strength against John Tavares. Tavares, Moulson and Boyes did much better in the first period than the rest of the game… when the Islanders had more powerplays to work with. For the rest of the game, the Islanders got just three chances with Tavares lined up against Phaneuf.
-No, the issue isn't Phaneuf or how the Leafs match their top pair against top lines. Without Carl Gunnarsson in the lineup, Phaneuf doesn't have a trusty defensive partner that lets him take more risks offensively. The Leafs also don't have a pairing that can match up against second lines. I like John-Michael Liles (his help on a turnover led to a Joffrey Lupul chance towards the end of the first) but I don't think Ryan O'Byrne has been consistent enough to get Top Four minutes. He'll follow up an above average game with a bad game, and sometimes a bad game with a worse game. It shouldn't be a challenge for pro hockey players to play against second and third lines.
-That said, New York is a good team, and their first three lines just swarmed the net and forced pucks inside, looking for deflections and rebounds, rather than trying to pass around the net like the Leafs do. The Leafs love their cycling. Love it. Keep the puck around the boards and wait for mistakes. The Islanders are proactive in trying to beat the guys they're up against. They attempted a lot of shots tonight and seem confident enough in their ability to recover pucks that they don't mind giving up a possession or two.
-Where is Nazem Kadri? You can tell he's playing, but he hasn't actually done much over the last while. What's he missing? Even when he wasn't the firewagon he was for those three weeks he became the team's top scorer, he was consistently generating chances. He was on the ice for two Leafs chances tonight, but wasn't involved in either of them. He had a single shot attempt: registered with 6:29 to go in the third period when the game was well out of reach. It's rare for a player's performance to drop off like this. Production, sure, you can account for percentages, but usually when a player is shooting at 0%, he's at least going 0-for-2 or 0-for-3. Kadri hasn't been.
-Phil Kessel had two assists and is a point ahead of Tavares in the scoring race. In his early-season slump, I kept making the comments that Kessel was playing his game, but the bounces weren't coming. He was shooting from good areas and the first line was on the ice for a tonne of chances. Now he's one of the top scorers in the league. Even with a tough performance tonight, no Leafs forward was on the ice for more Toronto scoring chances than Kessel on this night.
-Also, the only Leafs player who was a "plus" in scoring chances (Kessel, MacArthur, Colton Orr, Frazer McLaren and Mark Fraser were all "even") was Mikhail Grabovski. Again. Read into his recent performance what you will. He's been nails defensively, playing in the first period against Josh Bailey's line, for some reason switched to defending the third line and the Bailey line proceeded to run over the Leafs defence. Hmm.
-There was also this...
I have to wonder what Randy Carlyle is thinking playing Orr and McClaren when down 2 goals with 10 minutes left in the third.— David Johnson (@hockeyanalysis) April 19, 2013
-Yeah, they got shifts with Mikhail Grabovski for some reason, who was clearly the worst Leaf on the ice...
-Here's a hilarious one from the New York side. Despite out-chancing Toronto 11-7 at even strength, Mark Carkner was a minus-four on the night. Even his partner Mark Streit managed to be on the ice for a couple of chances for when separated from Carkner. He has a function, I'm sure.
Anyway, here are the individual scoring chance differentials:
|Chances For||Chances Vs.||Chances +/-|
|James van Riemsdyk||2||5||-3|
|Chances For||Chances Vs.||Chances +/-|
|Toronto (EV)||2 (1)||3 (3)||3 (3)||8 (7)|
|NY Islanders (EV)||11 (4)||6 (6)||1 (1)||18 (11)|
LeafsNation Three Stars:
- John Tavares
- Kyle Okposo
- Lubomir Visnovsky