Winter Classic Excuse Lame

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Jan. 5) – Let’s get the violins out: “Toronto Maple Leafs were destroyed, 7-1, by New York Rangers Saturday night at Air Canada Centre because of the unavoidable Bridgestone Winter Classic hangover.” Instruments at ease.

Happy to purge that from your system, folks?

Good. Now, for a dose of reality.

Since the advent of the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2008 at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, participants were a more-than respectable 6-3-1 in follow-up games. Of course, that was before the Leafs no-show here on Saturday. Only once, had a Winter Classic team lost its next game by as many as three goals: Philadelphia getting spanked, 7-4, at Ottawa after playing Boston at Fenway Park in 2010. Clearly worn out from the experience, Maple Leafs merely doubled the record against New York.

So, what was that about a Winter Classic hangover? Oh… never mind.

If Winter Classic teams were 0-10-0 in follow-up games before Saturday night, making an excuse for the Leafs would still have been lame.

I’ve been paying close attention to the NHL schedule this season and I don’t recall there being an outdoor extravaganza before the Toronto at Columbus encounter of Oct. 25. After two days off, Maple Leafs were dead-flat and lost, 5-2. I looked again and found nothing peculiar about the schedule prior to a 4-0 no-show in Vancouver, Nov. 2, again after a two-day break. All NHL games were played indoor prior to Columbus humiliating the Maple Leafs for a second time, 6-0, at Air Canada Centre, Nov. 25. Same in the days leading to the “brain-dead” match (Randy Carlyle’s words, not mine) at St. Louis, Dec. 12 – a 6-3 final score that was wildly flattering to the visitors. And, the only outdoor activity prior to the 3-1 home-ice debacle against Florida, Dec. 17, was Leaf players walking from house to car. You probably get the drift by now.

SATURDAY NIGHT CARNAGE AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE. CBC IMAGE

You see, the 7-1 beat-down by the Rangers was pretty much a typical Leaf game in every way but one: Neither Jonathan Bernier nor James Reimer could bail out 16 blase teammates (two others – Carl Gunnarsson and David Clarkson – left early with injuries). Again, the opposition fired with impunity at the Toronto goal: Rangers out-gunning the Leafs, 50-26. Again, Maple Leaf players stood around, waiting for the next guy to make a move. Again, Carlyle scribbled maniacally on a note-pad behind the bench, only to bury head in hands a half-dozen times.

Whatever gusto Leafs had on home ice early in the season is also gone. After an 8-2-0 start, the club is 6-7-1. Not good.

And, really, there was no excuse for Saturday’s performance. If fatigue were a factor, it should have hindered the Rangers, who played – albeit horrifically – the previous night in Pittsburgh. Leafs, truth be known, are in the softest part of their schedule – six games in 18 days between Dec. 22 and Jan. 8. Facing Division and Conference teams they must beat in order to make the playoffs. In their past 10 losses, Leafs are 0-8-2, meaning they have failed to earn a point in eight of them. Conversely, Leafs have just two regulation wins in their past 22 games… hardly a playoff prescription. So, let’s go easy on the Winter Classic excuse.

It simply doesn’t wash.

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