Leafs loss to Panthers all about old habits

February 5, 2014, 12:28 AM

Sometimes it takes a thorough pounding from a legitimate powerhouse to expose the holes in a surging team’s game.

It helps them reset. It offers some perspective. So there are a lot of positives for the Toronto Maple Leafs to take from Tuesday night’s complete shellacking at the hands of one of the most feared offences in the league. After going 10-1-1 in their past dozen games the Leafs came into Chicago, uh… Pittsburgh no, wait… Anaheim …huh?… Florida?

That happened in Florida? Against the Panthers? The second worst team in the Eastern Conference just outshot you 48 to 21?

Okay, so scratch all of that. Sometimes it takes a pounding from one of the weakest offences in the game to expose the glaring holes that a remarkable streak of wins has simply covered up. The Leafs may have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL the past month and looked to be roaring into the Olympic break, but they also average 36.3 shots against per game, good for worst in the league.

This is no secret, of course. But it’s easy to forget when your top line is scoring at will and your best forward tallies seven goals and 20 points in 15 January games—and then starts a new month off with a hat trick in a win over the Ottawa Senators. Phil Kessel has been sensational and is proving he’s worth every penny of his $64-million extension.

But as essential as he’s been through the Leafs’ recent fortune, the team’s most valuable player has been Jonathan Bernier. He’s not just the most important player on the ice—he’s the Leafs entire defence strategy.

And why not? Bernier now owns a 7-2-2 record when he faces more than 40 shots. He’s good. And a lot of those shots are coming from the outside, right?

Everyone: PLEASE STOP SAYING THAT.

Because sometimes a team that looks like it’s one of the hottest teams in the league heads into Sunrise, Fla., on a Tuesday in February to play one of the worst teams in the league —with more than the half the arena packed with their own fans; with their fathers flown in to proudly beam as they watch their sons—and they get outshot 19-4 in the first period. And your ’tender plays beautifully: eating up pucks and driving away rebounds, despite an onslaught that includes several excellent chances in the slot. Then you come out in the second period and allow an impotent power play—one goal in 50 previous attempts—to put Scottie Upshall directly in front of your goalie, so a shot from Tom Gilbert from the outside goes shelf.

Meanwhile, Tim Thomas gets to have his own private tea party down in Florida’s crease. End of the second, shots are 37 to 12 for the Panthers.

No worries. You trailed by two goals in your last two games and came back and won with your highflying offence. Give them another to start the third—let Brian Campbell waltz into your zone and fire a shot from the top corner of the circle for Jesse Winchester to tip in. Sure, Bernier should have had the last one, a weak shot from Shawn Matthias on a bad angle. Maybe he’s trying to tell you something…

When your strategy is to give opposing forwards a 10-foot gap as they fly into your zone, or to let them fire at will from the slot (or a bad angle from the boards for that matter)—when your strategy is to rely on an exceptional goalie and a high powered offence—you’re not a team that can sustain what the Leafs did last month.

Sometimes it takes a stinker in Florida to really drive that point home. With two games left before the Olympic break and the playoff stretch ahead, this might the perfect time to sober up. And, hey, David Clarkson scored in his return from the injured list! There’s always that.

This Leafs team has proven they have a lot to look forward to—just as long as they remember to get back.

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