More “Missouri” in St. Louis

By HOWARD BERGER

“If the visitors can summon more energy – and rested James Reimer can stonewall Alex Steen, David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Co. – the game will be competitive. Otherwise, TV remotes around the GTA will be active midway through the second period.”

– From post-game blog here Wednesday.

TORONTO (Dec. 13) – Given the Blackberry text-message received at 8:42 EST Thursday night, my son Shane leapt for his TV remote midway through the first period – a full 20 playing minutes earlier in St. Louis than I’d predicted after the Los Angeles game on Wednesday. Could you blame the poor guy?

All but the final score was truly hideous for Maple Leafs – the 6-3 count bearing a similar resemblance to this game that the late Phyllis Diller did to Marylin Monroe. In other words, not much. An “own-goal” – soccer style – by Alex Pietrangelo (credited to James van Riemsdyk) turned the match laughably close (5-3) in the final minutes before an empty-netter sealed the deal; truth is, the home side could have booked a 10-spot were it not for recurrent pings of iron.

Leafs were in this game until the warm-up. And though it’s hardly shameful to be denied by a St. Louis team that has no apparent weakness, a shred of inclination was not too much to ask from the visitors – weary as they may have been after arriving in the Gateway City at 3 a.m. on Thursday. Instead, there was no fight; no ambition; no willingness to engage a superior opponent in the middle of the ring.

Were it not so familiar to Leaf fans in 2013-14, it would have been demoralizing. Fact remains, however, the Blue and White is no longer in a discussion of the NHL’s elite teams. Not many weeks from now, any discussion of playoff teams will also exclude the Maple Leafs… if a new pattern is not established. Should the Leafs pull a golden sombrero this week and fail to wrest a single point from Boston, L.A., St. Louis and Chicago (Saturday night at Air Canada Centre), general manager Dave Nonis might require a solid Plan B. I’m intentionally leaving out Monday’s encounter at Pittsburgh only because the Leafs have garnered three points from Crosby, Malkin and Co. this season. Penguins, however, are in the same genre as the Bruins, Kings, Blues and Blackhawks.

FORMER LEAF ALEX STEEN – WITH A STEP ON CARL GUNNARSSON – SWOOPS IN ON JONATHAN BERNIER THURSDAY NIGHT IN ST. LOUIS. DILIP VISHWANAT GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

Rather impressively, there aren’t many apologists in Leaf land right now. Even the club’s telecasting employees – Joe Bowen and Greg Millen – were brutally honest during Thursday’s debacle in St. Louis… and props, from this corner, to both men. The reason, I suspect, is simple: There was no expectation that Leafs would be unable to match the performance of last year’s club, let alone tumble so precipitously (now 6-10-3 since Oct. 30), with no indication of a turnabout. The competitive quotient of this year’s club has been routinely nominal. Why should we expect the pattern to change for any length of time? The current Leafs have to rank among the most disappointing in recent memory.

And, to my mind, it has virtually nothing to do with personnel.

Though it’s difficult to imagine Tyler Bozak and David Bolland hoisting Leafs into sudden contention upon their return from injury, each is vital to a club that – when reasonably intact – should be capable of standing up to most NHL rivals. This has rarely been the case so far in 2013-14.

Instead, the vim and vigor of last year’s team has been replaced by a baffling sloth – no more apparent than midway through the third period on Thursday when Mason Raymond, during a line change, failed to dump the puck deep into St. Louis territory. Raymond, with full and unchallenged possession, barely nudged it to the blue-line, 25 feet away. If Randy Carlyle had hair, much of it would have been between his fingers at that point. And, this isn’t to pick on Raymond – a more-than-decent acquisition by the Maple Leafs. But, the moment was clearly symbolic of a team that refuses to show up for work on many nights.

Will it change?

The evidence, right now, is marginal.

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