Leafs’ window of opportunity closing

David Backes scored a hat trick as the Blues put a big dent in the Leafs' chances to make the playoffs.

TORONTO – Another failed third-period comeback, another missed opportunity, another step closer to missing the playoffs.

As the Toronto Maple Leafs slide down the Eastern Conference standings continued on Tuesday night – aided by a 5-3 loss to the league-leading St. Louis Blues and some unfavourable results elsewhere – one relevant question emerged amid the growing frustration at Air Canada Centre: Is this team simply out of gas?

For so much of the season, the Leafs have confounded and confused. Outstanding goaltending, a dangerous top line and a dynamic power play masked defensive deficiencies and a struggling penalty kill. Hot streaks unexpectedly grew out of cold ones. They were outshot again and again and again.

Through it all, Toronto managed to sit in a playoff position for all but a five-day stretch in January. At least until now.

The Leafs are currently among four Eastern Conference teams tied with 80 points that are fighting for the two wild card positions. Technically, Columbus and Detroit now occupy those spots because both have played one fewer game than Toronto and Washington.

Of course, the one thing that differentiates the Leafs from their competitors is the fact that they’ve lost six straight games in regulation. The Blue Jackets, Red Wings and Capitals have already been grinding and fighting to stay in the playoff chase while the Leafs were squandering the nine-point cushion they built through 67 games of an 82-game season.

They are leaking oil everywhere right now and struggling to find answers. As top-line winger James van Riemsdyk was passionately declaring “we have a lot of fight left in us” after Tuesday’s game, it was impossible not to wonder if that was actually true.

That isn’t even meant as a criticism – it just might be reality. The team that found a way to cope with its shortcomings for more than three-quarters of the schedule may simply have run out of answers just as the finish line was coming into sight.

One important point worth mentioning is that there is no shame for any middle-of-the-pack team that loses to St. Louis. If anything, the most important big picture takeaway from Tuesday night’s game is that these Blues are every bit as good as advertised. They could win the Stanley Cup.

Against a Toronto team that was supposed to be as desperate as they come, the Blues generated 23 shots on Jonathan Bernier in the first period alone while cycling around and around the offensive zone. It was complete domination. The Leafs looked lost.

“They were killing 30 or 40 seconds in our zone and then we had to change,” said Bernier. “That was the whole first period.”

Added Leafs coach Randy Carlyle: “We did not have the puck and when we did we just slapped it around. It was like we were frozen for 30 minutes of the hockey game.”

Slow starts have been a troubling trend during the losing stretch and this was no different. Even though Joffrey Lupul broke a run of seven games where the Leafs failed to score first and Bernier was sharp after returning from a groin strain, the Toronto players were unable to draw off those early positives.

In fact, it wasn’t until Carl Gunnarsson scored an unlikely goal early in the third period where the Leafs truly came alive. That made it 4-2 and van Riemsdyk would later get them within one thanks to a gorgeous pass from Phil Kessel, but there would be no miracle comeback.

The Leafs recognize that life would be better if they weren’t always trying to tie things up late with their goalie on the bench, but they haven’t been able to do anything about it.

“It seems like when we get down (in games) then we’re playing with no fear,” said Lupul. “We’re letting some of our skill take over, our defencemen are rushing the puck out of the zone and making plays. At the start of the game, we seemed a little tentative. …

“It’s more of a psychological thing than it is a physical thing for sure.”

All season, the Leafs have leaned heavily on the top line of van Riemsdyk, Kessel and Tyler Bozak. While those players have continued to produce during the team’s slump, they have slowed from the ridiculous scoring pace they established from mid-January through the Olympic break and haven’t really been picked up by the secondary scorers.

That put more pressure on Toronto’s porous defensive play and, by extension, the goaltending – with James Reimer struggling in a few outings recently after Bernier went down to injury.

While many have started searching out individual targets, the real problem is that the entire machine has been bogged down. The bucket is springing leaks.

“It’s a hard league,” observed veteran Blues goalie Ryan Miller. “You’ve got to keep it all together.”

Of course, the Leafs do still have a small amount of time to try and rediscover their winning formula. That is why they were vowing to fight on after the loss to St. Louis.

It will likely take a 5-2-1 record down the stretch to get them into the playoffs, although that will obviously depend heavily on how the other teams fare as well.

“The whole year we thought we were a playoff team and we still believe that now,” said Lupul. “There’s reason for concern, but it’s not completely time to panic.”

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