PHILADELPHIA – A seven-game losing streak doesn’t just happen on its own. It is built painfully: One mistake at a time, one game at a time.
And on Friday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs continued slide into oblivion could basically be summed up by one misplay early in the third period.
It began innocently enough, with James van Riemsdyk carrying the puck out of his end and seemingly to safety with plenty of time to make a good decision. But as he entered the neutral zone, he chose to throw it into traffic – only to see it carom off Scott Hartnell and directly onto Claude Giroux’s stick.
Suddenly, there was a 2-on-1 for the Flyers. Before you could blink, the score was 3-1 for Philadelphia with 15 minutes to play in a game the Maple Leafs could ill afford to lose.
“We were forcing the puck into the middle of the ice,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said after Friday’s 4-2 loss. “Those are tough ones. … You can’t turn the puck over in these critical situations.”
A lot went into the sequence. It included some bad luck. Carl Gunnarsson had just laid Giroux out with a nice bodycheck behind the net – the main reason the Flyers captain was in position to capitalize on the turnover – and went immediately to the bench for a change.
Cody Franson jumped on in his place and attempted to race back to break up the odd-man rush. He never had a chance.
“It was a bad change,” said Gunnarsson. “I was tired and I thought we had the puck under control so I thought it was safe to go and change.”
Even van Riemsdyk was attempting a fairly routine play, albeit an ill-advised one with both Hartnell and Jakub Voracek clogging the middle of the ice. The Leafs winger was attempting to connect with captain Dion Phaneuf as he made a rush through the neutral zone.
“It’s a play you make thousands of times,” van Riemsdyk explained. “You’re just sliding it into the middle to the weak side ‘D’ and he leads the rush, but it hits the piece of (Hartnell’s) skate and goes the other way. That’s how it goes.
“Obviously, I’ve got to try to execute that play a little better – maybe try a little simpler one – but it’s a play that you do thousands of times throughout the year and usually it doesn’t end up like that.”
And so here we are: The Leafs season is dangling by a thread after yet another game where the team played well enough to win and didn’t. The dirty little secret of this losing streak is that Toronto routinely played much worse than it has lately in games it won earlier in the year.
The team has only been outshot in three of the seven losses – Toronto finished ahead of Philly, 34-29, on this night – but continues to shoot itself in the foot with costly defensive mistakes. The number of high-quality chances the Leafs allow is impossible to ignore. The fact they’re often ending up on the sticks of quality players like Giroux has made it worse.
“It comes down to mistakes,” said centre Jay McClement. “You’ve just got to find a way to minimize those.”
Perhaps the only piece of good news for Toronto is that the other teams around them in the standings are feeling the pressure, too. Columbus was beaten 2-1 by Pittsburgh on Friday. Amazingly, it was the fourth straight night where the Leafs, Jackets, Wings and Caps remained stuck on 80 points – making it look like a turtle race for the final two wild card spots.
As weird as it seems, the Leafs are still right in the thick of things. The sky may be falling but the ground hasn’t completely given way. You’d have to think that a win over Detroit (preferably in regulation) on Saturday night is absolutely necessary to affirm the fact that Toronto still has a legitimate chance.
“We all know that could be the game of the season,” said Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier.
The one they lost in Philadelphia was pretty big, too.
Signs of trouble were evident early when McClement was kicked out of the faceoff circle during a 3-on-5 penalty kill and Phaneuf had to step in for the first draw of his career. Giroux beat him cleanly and seconds later Vinny Lecavalier opened the scoring.
Toronto then had a goal taken away because Joffrey Lupul interfered with Steve Mason and saw Hartnell score on a power play after van Riemsdyk had made it 1-1. It was two steps back, one step forward from start to finish.
To stand in the hallway near the Leafs dressing room after Friday’s game was akin to walking into a funeral home. There were hushed silences, long faces. The management team of Dave Nonis, Claude Loiselle and Dave Poulin paced around in frustration.
Absolutely no one wanted to be there.
“Overall, we didn’t think that we had that bad of a night, but we’re on the wrong side of the score,” said Carlyle. “That’s what counts the most.”
In fact, it’s all that counts right now. And it’s been 15 long days since Toronto so much as earned a point in the standings.