SUNRISE, Fla. — The thing about charmed lives is that they end, usually with a thud.
The Leafs had first been charmed by the schedule maker. After falling out of a wild-card slot in the Eastern Conference and with the odds of making the playoffs lengthening, Toronto had five consecutive dates with teams that were either long shots or no-shots at making the playoffs. And in the first three of those tilts, home versus Detroit and Philly and at Carolina Saturday night, the Leafs had been fortunate to squeeze out the maximum six points while playing something less than their best hockey of the season.
They had won with very good and occasionally great performances by Frederik Andersen in net and without a goal good, bad or indifferent from Auston Matthews. They won with a bare margin of play in their favour or against the tide. Somehow a team rife with young players trying to figure out the league had figured out a way to win, so the partisans convinced themselves.
Charm was breaking out on all fronts, it appeared. On Monday night, the second of two off-days in Florida, the Leafs watched their rivals for the last playoff spot in the conference, the New York Islanders, get pummelled 8-4 by the Hurricanes. Though the Tampa Bay Lightning, an injury-riddled team that designated itself a seller at the trade deadline, had somehow crawled back into the chase, the Leafs were in control of their fate. Two winnable games in the Sunshine State and there’d be announcements for playoff-ticket sales.
The Leafs had been getting all the breaks but then it broke against the Panthers. The Leafs had got it done but against Florida in Game 68 it came undone.
You had a sense it was going to be a long night for the snowbirds when the home team opened the scoring 18 seconds in. The Leafs seemed to be sleepwalking off a draw in their own end. Panthers’ Aleksander Barkov won a faceoff from Nazem Kadri to Andersen’s left and the Leafs gave Jonathan Huberdeau no attention and plenty of time to find Barkov crashing the net. Morgan Rielly was left waving in the wake of Barkov who put the puck away in the blue paint. This silenced the sunburnt half of the crowd who came to South Florida from Toronto for March break and found tickets much easier to score at the BB&T Center than at the ACC. Mike Babcock pointed to this as a portent of a bad night. “We went through this this morning,” the coach said.
Even uglier was the goal that stretched the Florida lead to two midway through the first.
The Leafs were on a power play and pressing when the puck came back to Nikita Zaitsev at the point and what happened next defies easy explanation. Untouched and facing no pressure, Zaitsev took an awkward spill—you’d have presumed he caught an edge, lost another and skated over a man-of-war. Colton Sceviour took the puck and set off on a 150-foot breakaway and Zaitsev gave vain chase—it might not have been in vain were it not for Tyler Bozak accidentally tripping his teammate. Sceviour deked out Andersen. Two-zip in a most awful way.
Bozak afterward didn’t equivocate. “A lot of it was mistakes, mistakes that aren’t characteristic,” the centre said.
The Leafs trailed after the first period 3-1. It could have worse and would have been were it not for a broken twig a few shifts after Sceviour’s shortie.
Toronto controlled the puck on a power play in part because defenceman Mike Matheson’s stick disassembled when he tried to clear the puck. He was empty-handed for what seemed like 20 seconds and when the puck came his way he tried to kick it out of the zone—the sequence evoked Lucy holding for Charlie Brown. William Nylander pounced and delivered the puck to Leo Komarov who beat former Leafs netminder James Reimer.
Less than a minute later, however, Jonathan Marchessault took a harmless-looking wrist shot on Andersen from just inside the blue line, harmless-looking enough that Bozak basically rubber-necked rather than check the stumpy right-winger. Somehow Andersen whiffed on it and though Mike Babcock had cause to pull him at that point he let the netminder finish the period and replaced him with Curtis McElhinney after the intermission.
The Panthers poured it on in the middle frame and put the game away with a second goal from Marchessault and markers from Reilly Smith and Jussi Jokinen. The Leafs got a goal late in the second from Nikita Soshnikov but it was immaterial. Brian Boyle, Matt Martin and Soshnikov were perhaps Toronto’s best line in the second period and if that’s up for discussion you know things are going sideways. No team will get much done if it’s the fourth line leading the way.
The third period was purely academic. The same can’t be said of the Leafs’ playoff chances but their prospects plummeted in one black Tuesday night—their loss to Florida combined with the Islanders’ and Tampa Bay’s overtime wins against the Hurricanes and Senators respectively leave Toronto 10th in the Eastern Conference.
Saying that the Leafs’ game against the Bolts in Tampa Thursday night is Toronto’s most crucial 60 minutes of the season is true but only to a point. With a win over the Lightning the Leafs will have a chance to play other crucial games. With a loss, though, their odds grow longer.
Kadri picked up what was a common theme or at least the most heartening spin. “We got lots of time,” he said. Still it feels like something more than a matter of time, time and space maybe The Leafs wasted 60 precious minutes, lost ground in the standings and maybe an irrational belief that things were going to keep breaking their way.