TORONTO — Concern had already started to creep in before the end of the second period.
This was supposed to be a statement game — the “biggest of the year,” according to coach Randy Carlyle — and the message being sent by the play of the Toronto Maple Leafs wasn’t very encouraging.
You could feel it in the building and you could certainly see it on the ice.
Carlyle had identified the potential trouble spots before his team even faced off against the New York Islanders and they turned out to be eerily prophetic during Thursday’s 5-3 loss.
“If we cannot outwork a hockey club or if we can’t skate with a hockey club or if we can’t be physical then we’re not going to be effective,” Carlyle said after the morning skate.
They were not effective against the Islanders. Far from it.
In fact, as the Maple Leafs found themselves picking through the wreckage of a third poor performance in four days, the task facing Carlyle and his coaching staff was clear: How can they stop the bleeding?
The challenge is especially great with so little time left in the regular season, although the veteran coach wouldn’t concede that doubt is tougher for players to shake at this point in the schedule.
“If I knew that, I probably wouldn’t tell you the truth,” said Carlyle. “But I don’t know the answer.”
Not only did Toronto fail to inch closer to clinching a playoff spot, it saw the race tighten up considerably. All four teams immediately behind them in the Eastern Conference standings — Ottawa, the Islanders, the Rangers and Winnipeg — won games Thursday, which reduced the Leafs margin over ninth place to five points.
While that should still be more than enough to halt the franchise drought at nine years, fans have every right to fret after seeing how the team is performing.
The Leafs players refused to put any credence into the notion that they began to struggle after it appeared they had basically locked up an invite to the post-season.
“It has nothing to do with the playoff spot,” defenceman Cody Franson said emphatically. “For whatever reason we got away from our system a little bit and we have to stop the bleeding here and get back to what made us successful. Our lack of success in the last couple games has nothing to do with thinking we have a playoff spot.
“We don’t work that way. We work one day at a time.”
After Monday’s lucky 13-shot victory over New Jersey and Tuesday’s deflating 5-1 loss in Washington, there was every reason to believe the Leafs would be a hungry team against the Islanders.
But for the third straight game they were unable to clear the puck out of their own zone with any regularity. It showed in the lopsided possession for the visitors and it showed on the shot clock, where the Islanders led 34-10 after 40 minutes and 38-21 at the end of the night.
In all, the Leafs have been outshot 107-64 this week.
“We didn’t really have much of anything tonight,” said forward Joffrey Lupul. “We never really were able to turn the momentum, they were beating us to pucks, they were hungry offensively, we were making awful awful turnovers, especially when we got up 2-0 in the first (period).
“We were throwing the puck in the middle of the ice and giving them the chance to turn the momentum and have success.”
They weren’t the sole cause of their undoing.
Islanders forward John Tavares added a little fuel to the Hart Trophy buzz he’s been receiving with a dominant performance. The native of nearby Oakville, Ont., found Brad Boyes with spin-o-rama pass to get New York on the scoreboard and later added two goals of his own.
Tavares is a big reason why the Islanders are 10-1-2 in their last 13 games and closing in on a playoff berth for the first time since 2007.
“What Johnny does for us is extremely valuable,” said Boyes. “If he goes, we go. Again tonight, he’s so consistent.
“The guy wants it.”
As bad as the night ended up for Toronto, it was easy to forget how promising it had begun. After killing off an early 5-on-3, Lupul made a big time power move and scored his ninth goal in 12 games this season.
Franson soon made it 2-0 and it looked like the Leafs appeared to be off and running.
However, the lead didn’t even last until the end of the first period and Toronto couldn’t get it together from there. It’s a troubling trend that needs to be reversed.
“We’re going to fix it,” said Lupul. “We already talked and there’s going to be a lot of video tomorrow I think. We’ll get back to basics and we’ll fix it.”
To Carlyle’s credit, he has made no attempt to sugarcoat the situation. The coach even offered to take his share in responsibility for not having the players better prepared.
“The last nine periods of hockey have been eerily similar,” said Carlyle. “It’s back to the drawing board. … We’re going to take on a workmanlike attitude and we’re going to go and meet this head on.”
It promises to be an important few days ahead for the Leafs.
The longer this feeling lingers, the tougher it will be to reverse course.