Leafs can’t afford to keep sliding down slope

A three game losing streak has begun to jeopardized the Leafs playoff hopes as the teams behind them have either caught up or are closing the gap.

TORONTO – It has been said that acknowledging a problem is the first step to solving it.

If nothing else, the Toronto Maple Leafs have that part down. The players were practically tripping over one another to issue a mea culpa for their role in Wednesday’s 5-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning – the team’s third in a four-day stretch that has seen their playoff hopes go from a near-lock to less-than-certain.

First you had Joffrey Lupul talking about the Leafs getting “exposed” and accepting blame for Steven Stamkos’ hat trick goal, the eventual winner. Then there was James Reimer talking about a “crappy” start in reference to the innocent-looking Radko Gudas point shot that got behind him just 59 seconds in.

On and on it went throughout a deflated home locker-room at Air Canada Centre. No one seemed to be hiding at a time when panic might be rising. Few could truly escape blame after another slow start and failed comeback bid.

The theme running through virtually all of the post-game comments, just like after the losses in Detroit and Washington, was about the need to tighten things up defensively.

“It really comes down to, I think in my opinion, is just getting the job done in our zone,” said Tim Gleason, a sensible stay-at-home defenceman with very few frills to his game. “We have such good offence that that’ll take care of itself. I think as a group of five we really have to button down, get pucks out when we can and do the simple things in our zone.”

This, of course, has been a recurring issue at various points of a season that has seen the Leafs goaltending mask a lot of problems – with plenty of assistance from a high-powered first line.

Those crutches may no longer be readily available, not with No. 1 goaltender Jonathan Bernier recovering from a groin strain and opponents clamping down in the waning weeks of the schedule. What could come to define the defining part of this 2013-14 campaign in Toronto is whether the blue and white can follow suit in any meaningful way.

The Leafs, it must be remembered, still hold down a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference and will continue to do so when the puck drops on Saturday’s meeting with the Montreal Canadiens here at Air Canada Centre. To stay there through April 13 will require them to earn 11 or 12 points over the final 11 games.

“We haven’t played as well as we need to and we’re not sitting here saying that we’re playing the type of hockey that is required to have success,” said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. “Is it a trend? Well we’ve lost three games in a row.

“If we show the desperation that we displayed in the last half of the game for 60 minutes, we surely could improve our chances.”

There is a certain irony to the fact that the Leafs ended up outshooting Tampa, 39-30, on this night thanks to a third period where they threw everything at Ben Bishop. This was the first time all season that the team managed to generate more shots than an opponent in consecutive games, but it still came away with nothing to show for it.

It was a forgettable occasion all around – with defenceman Paul Ranger getting carted off on a stretcher late in the first period after having his head driven into the end boards by Alex Killorn on a play that Carlyle referred to as a “textbook” example of what the NHL wants to get rid of.

Ranger was said to be awake, alert and conscious in hospital and there was some hope that his injuries might not be too serious, according to Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos. If so, that would be the best news of the night for the Leafs.

More good news could also arrive with the Carlyle expecting Bernier to participate in Friday’s practice. The last few days have been particularly hard on Reimer, who was not directly at fault for any of the losses but left the arena on Wednesday night bemoaning the fact that he had performed below his potential.

“I just want to come out and play well and kind of be a difference-maker, and unfortunately it wasn’t the case,” he said. “I thought I made some good saves, but it definitely wasn’t the performance I was looking for. I wanted to come out and be big and keep your team in it, and that didn’t happen tonight.”

The Tampa players were naturally buoyant after beating the Leafs for the first time this season in their third try. That put them three points ahead of Toronto, with two games in hand, but no one wanted to take too much for granted.

About the only guarantee over the final three-plus weeks of the season is that there is likely to be some twists and turns for all of the teams on the bubble.

“You never want to look too far ahead, but who knows? One of us could be out, both could be out or we could be playing each other,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of the Leafs. “It’s time where points are paramount.”

That is something the Toronto players can sense and feel right now. There is no doubt about that. What remains to be seen is whether they can do anything about it.

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