SAN JOSE, Calif. – The game looked to be all-but lost when Dion Phaneuf saw a chance to swing the scale somewhat back in the Toronto Maple Leafs direction.
So the captain stepped into the neutral zone, lined up the hard-charging Patrick Marleau … and missed. Missed his intended target, that is.
To say that his collision with teammate James van Riemsdyk had the potential to be far more damaging than Tuesday’s 6-2 loss to the high-octane San Jose Sharks would be a massive understatement. Fortunately for the Leafs, the top-line winger was fit to return after spending about 15 minutes in the quiet room and all seemed to be well with a player who has dealt with at least one concussion in the past.
With that huge sigh of relief out of the way, the best thing Toronto could take from this flat effort was a few pointers. The Sharks put on a clinic in puck possession at SAP Arena and showed exactly why they might be a wise pick to finally raise the Stanley Cup this spring.
What was also impressive was how determined the San Jose players remained in all three zones right up until the final buzzer. They weren’t letting up even though the final result stopped being in doubt by roughly the midway point of the second period.
This was how you win a hockey game. This is also why the Sharks have only dropped four of 33 games in this building in regulation since the start of the season. They know how to get the job done, especially against weaker opponents.
It was such a one-sided affair that the Toronto players didn’t even come across as frustrated in the immediate aftermath. Playing on back-to-back nights, coming off a big victory in Anaheim, there wasn’t much mystery about what happened here.
“We seemed to be trying to come from behind the whole game,” said Phaneuf.
“We didn’t skate,” added coach Randy Carlyle. “We were standing still.”
The task won’t get any easier with a visit to Staples Center looming on Thursday night. Once there, the Leafs will come up against a L.A. Kings team that has won eight straight games and will be looking to make it nine in a row against former teammate Jonathan Bernier.
Toronto’s No. 1 goaltender sat out Tuesday’s game in San Jose – poor James Reimer was left to face 48 San Jose shots – and he was already looking forward to his next assignment before even boarding the plane. Bernier’s scouting report on the Kings can apply to virtually any of the top teams in the Western Conference.
“They play a simple game – just like San Jose tonight,” he said. “All of their top guns are going to chip the puck and (avoid) turnovers. We’ve got to learn from those teams.”
Learning is a tricky proposition, especially at this juncture of the schedule. The Leafs have only 15 games remaining before what they hope is another crack at post-season play. However, even without the ability to wave a magic wand and immediately be turned into the Toronto Sharks, this particular business trip could drive home a few points about where improvements need to be made.
There was also a sense of relief with van Riemsdyk appearing to be fine after taking a heavy hit early in the third period. That could have been a crippling loss.
“I got a little bit of both guys,” Phaneuf explained. “It’s a fast and that happens sometimes with timing. I was pretty worried when you see him go off the ice, but I was very relieved to see him come back and talk to him and know that he’s OK.”
While some immediately wondered why the Leafs would allow him to return to the game, Carlyle felt that they could use the extra body with a series of fights resulting in a parade to the penalty box. Van Riemsdyk also passed the NHL’s mandatory concussion protocol as administered by a Leafs trainer.
An injury to him right now might be the only way to slow the NHL’s hottest line – although the Sharks did a pretty good job of it for one night at least. They entered the game fearing what Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and van Riemsdyk were capable of, with coach Todd McLellan showing his team video after the morning skate and preaching the importance of limiting their ability to skate and create chances.
“They’ve got one of the highest scoring, if not the highest scoring line, in 2014 going,” McLellan said on Tuesday morning. “They’re a handful. We’ll have our work cut out for us.”
Even though that didn’t end up being the case later in the night, the sentiment will hold true for some of Toronto’s future opponents. Especially since JVR should be fine to keep playing down the stretch.
On this night, that was about the only positive the Leafs had in mind as they left San Jose.