By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Mar. 20) – Rocket science need not be applied to anything the Toronto Maple Leafs have achieved or squandered in recent weeks. As it has for the past thousand or so years, this is a club that relies on timely scoring and supernatural goaltending. When, in the absence of one or both, it must turn to defensive acumen, the team has no chance.
Such is the case right now with No. 1 goalie Jonathan Bernier sidelined indefinitely and the Leafs top forward unit of Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk shooting blanks. No combination could more simply result in the 1-4-0 slide that is imperiling the club’s playoff aspiration. When Leafs were flying before the Winter Olympic Games, the opposite prevailed – Bernier slamming the door and the Bozak line firing unlike any in the National Hockey League. Under no circumstance can the Leafs rely on cohesion or framework in the vicinity of their goal. It simply does not exist. Nor has it – for any length of time – since Roger Neilson stood behind the Toronto bench more than 3½ decades ago.
Why is it so virtually impossible for a Maple Leafs club in the post-1970’s era to excel defensively? It’s a question without an acceptable answer. If and when the puzzle is solved, a statue-likeness of the prevailing mind will be erected in Nathan Philips Square. Just think of a high-scoring Toronto club with stability in its own zone; a form of near-the-net strategy that could lessen the burden on its goaltender. New Jersey Devils have been able to do it for nearly as long as the Maple Leafs have failed. So, clearly, there’s a workable formula someplace out there.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS DEFENDED STEVEN STAMKOS AS IF HE WERE A RUMOR ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE – THE TAMPA BAY SNIPER RECORDING A NATURAL HAT-TRICK IN A 5-3 LIGHTNING VICTORY. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Does it require a brilliant coaching mind, or players with discipline? Given Leafs perpetual quandary, one might lean toward Door No. 2. An educated hockey fan could likely draw up a reasonable defensive blueprint – just as an equine trainer can lead a horse to a water-trough. Compelling that horse to drink is an altogether different matter. Some will claim the Leafs simply don’t have the horses, but how can such a thing prevail for 35 years? You could win a lottery with odds like that.
Still, game after game; week after week; month after month and season after lost season, the story in Leaf land never changes. Gather in the puck near the Toronto goal; take a quick look in front, and someone is bound to be wide open – even if that player’s name is Stamkos and the brilliant coaching minds have deduced he might be a person to watch.
As of this morning, Leafs are stuck uncomfortably in a Wild Card spot with 80 points and are no longer in immediate contention for a Top-3 placing in the Atlantic Division. Tampa Bay and Montreal have 83 points – the Lightning with two games in hand on Toronto; the Canadiens with one. If you want to know why Leafs are foundering, it’s easy… they have the worst goals for/goals against ratio (minus-11) among the 16 teams currently in a playoff spot. Compare that figure to such legitimate Stanley Cup contenders as Boston (plus-74); St. Louis (plus-70); Chicago (plus-55) and San Jose (plus-48) and it’s easy to determine how far the Leafs might advance in the post-season – providing they qualify.
If Casey Stengel were still alive – and a fan of the Maple Leafs – surely he’d be warbling, “Can’t someone on this team play defense?”
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