By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Mar. 13) – My goodness, have hockey fans in this town become spoiled. Maple Leaf zealots watched their team fold last season and plummet toward the National Hockey League basement. Any one of them would have exalted a 15-11-1 record – and playoff standing – after 27 games this year. Now that Leafs have lost three consecutively for the first time, my Twitter account is buzzing with recollection of the infamous “18-wheeler” comment from Brian Burke last March. The bandwagon has crumbled overnight.
Get a grip, folks.
While the Leafs are undeniably better than last season, they aren’t nearly good enough to tear through the 48-game schedule. Nor is any team in the NHL. Chicago, Boston, Montreal and Anaheim have thus far avoided a dry spell but their time will come. Given points already accrued, a brief downturn won’t have a calamitous effect, yet nerves will flutter.
Here in Leaf-land, panic is always on the fringe – poised to erupt at any sign of adversity. Not long ago, three games without a win was a hot streak for the Blue and White. Today, the sky is apparently falling. Consecutive losses to Boston, Pittsburgh and Winnipeg have sent Leafs into a minor tail-spin. With the Penguins back in town on Thursday, a four-game slide is possible.
That said, there’s little to suggest Leafs are incapable of recovery. True, a once-ample playoff cushion has dwindled to three points over Winnipeg; Jets have a game in hand and a nifty 8-5-2 road mark. Still, Leafs get another shot at their Canadian rival on Saturday at Air Canada Centre. Simply put, they need to avenge Tuesday’s debacle in Manitoba. With games becoming exponentially critical – and with a potential four-point Conference swing each night – we’ll see the kind of mettle Leafs truly have.
James Reimer has been ordinary-to-mediocre the past two games. Opposition shooters are zoning in on his high glove-hand susceptibility – a gremlin that must be conquered for him to mature in the NHL.
JAMES REIMER IS BEATEN HIGH TO THE GLOVE-HAND CORNER – HIS ACHILLES HEAL – BY EVANDER KANE OF WINNIPEG DURING JETS 5-2 ROMP ON TUESDAY AT MTS CENTRE. MARIANNE HELM GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
In fairness to Reimer, Leafs have suddenly reverted to the fire-drill defensive posture we’ve come to expect since the Medieval period. Elemental progress under Randy Carlyle in the first half of the season decayed against Pittsburgh and Winnipeg, though Leafs responded with verve and creativity to twice overcome two-goal Penguin leads and earn a regulation point. Allowing five goals in consecutive games, however, will not enrich the club’s playoff hope, or provide Carlyle many nights of calm, restful sleep.
Leafs are five games from the two-thirds mark of the schedule – a point they’ll arrive at with Boston here in town a week Saturday. At the same juncture a year ago, the club stood comfortably in a playoff district… or so we thought. Then came the 18-wheel Hummer, zooming toward the abyss. The unavoidable plunge appears to be haunting Leaf fanatics once again.
My advice is to relax.
No one reasonably expected the club to stand sixth in the Eastern Conference – however vulnerably – 27 games into the lockout-shortened schedule.
If Leafs are legitimately improved – as it would appear – they will quickly regain their defensive composure. If the first half was a mirage, you can simply refer to your pre-season apprehension.
FACEBOOK: HOWARD BERGER [THORNHILL ON]