December to prove a reality check for Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs' Frazer McLaren (38), head coach Randy Carlyle, Dion Phaneuf (3) and Paul Ranger (15) react at the end of the Leafs 4-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Remember the 18-wheeler that went right off a cliff in Leafs Nation a couple of seasons ago? Might we be seeing it happen again?

Okay, it’s far too early to declare a state of emergency in Toronto—the Leafs aren’t close to the horrible depths they’d sunk to when former general manager Brian Burke finally fired coach Ron Wilson.

“I’ve never had this before,” Burke said then, in explaining the firing after a 1-9-1 skid. “I’ve never had a team fall of a cliff like this before in my life. I’ve had dips. I’ve had slumps. I’ve had rough patches. But this is akin to an 18-wheeler going right off a cliff and I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life. I don’t know what happened.”

As I said, the Leafs haven’t become quite that much of a head-scratcher yet this season, but around the team there’s the feeling that the wheels on the semi may start drifting onto the shoulder of the road.

Through the first two months of the season there have been no shortage of warning signs and what’s on the horizon doesn’t offer much inspiration, either. We all know how the Leafs had early success, despite considerable flaws in their game—timely scoring, excellent special teams and terrific goaltending combined to produce imperfect results. In October, the Leafs emerged with a 10-4-0 record, build off a 6-1 run right out of the gate.

In November, of course, the scoring wasn’t as timely or frequent, the special team rankings fell like a rock, and the goaltending started to spring a leak. Add to that the injuries that mounted, especially down the middle where the Leafs were never considered overly strong to begin with. All of a sudden, all of those warts, the sloppy defensive play, the giveaways, the absence of a strong forecheck, began to take a toll and resulted in a 4-6-3 slide.

And now the Leafs have lost five consecutive games, and six out of the last seven.

The Leafs ambled through those first two months playing a lot of weaker opponents, but they’re staring down a Murderer’s Row this month. It began Tuesday night with San Jose—another loss. There is some potential relief with Dallas and Ottawa over the next two games, but then there is a run of Boston, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Chicago and a visit to Pittsburgh. Phoenix and Detroit loom deeper into the month.

Therein lies the potential for disaster.

In total, 10 of the 14 games in December are against teams with winning records—many of them very good records. Yes, the Leafs have 10 games at home, but right now that offers scant comfort.

The point is this team has to stop the bleeding right away. Given the overall difficulty of their schedule this month, the next two games almost feel like must-wins, especially when you factor in the intrusion of the HBO cameras ahead of the Winter Classic—that isn’t going to make life any easier.

Teams can’t clinch a playoff spot with a single good month, but they can certainly put themselves in a precarious position with a bad one.

And there are no easy fixes for what ails Toronto—the lack of a shutdown defenceman, or a return to health of a couple of centres. Cap issues make it hard to make mid-season fixes. Not impossible, but hard.

The good news, possibly, is that if a wild-card spot is the realistic playoff goal, then the teams they have to stay ahead of—the likes of Ottawa, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Carolina—all have issues of their own.

But right now the Leafs have to find a way to win, period. Management is hoping that the tough schedule and the attendant fear it might offer, will help scare the team straight.

That’s a fear, of course, is of an 18-wheeler drifting off the road.

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