By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Dec. 28) — In hindsight, there was nothing transparently wrong with the Maple Leafs the last time, prior to Sunday evening, they coughed up a two–goal lead in the third period. It occurred on Oct. 17, 2013 when Ryan Murphy, Eric Staal and Ron Hainsey scored unanswered for Carolina at the Air Canada Centre to overcome a 2–0 deficit.
When October 2013 ended, Leafs were near the apex of the National Hockey League standings with a 10–4–0 record after 14 games. Then came a 4–0 loss at Vancouver that could have been 9–0 and a slide in which the club recorded just three regulation–time wins in 32 matches. For those not wearing tinted glasses, the reason was simple: Even while winning, the Leafs were performing inadequately with and without the puck — controlling it far too rarely and relying incommensurately on Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer. This resulted in a massive shots–on–goal differential and the bottom fell out on the Blue and White.
To claim now the Maple Leafs have regressed 14 months during the past two weeks is slightly harsh, given a near–historic 10–1–1 romp between Nov. 20 and Dec. 16. Fans of (and apologists for) the hockey club are quick to point out this is not the same club as last season, despite an identical leadership corps. Such full–time additions as Stephane Robidas, Peter Holland, Daniel Winnick, Mike Santorelli, Richard Panik, David Booth and Leo Komarov (when healthy) have altered the complexion of the Maple Leafs; comparisons, therefore, are invalid.
To verify this, the aforementioned must resort to outworking and out–possessing the opposition, as Leafs did so well during the bulk of their magnificent hot streak. It will determine whether a 1–4–0 downturn that began on Dec. 18 at Carolina is a blip in the schedule or the start of another lengthy decline. For the moment, Leafs have reverted to their post–October 2013 deportment in which only a miraculous display by Bernier and/or Reimer would garner points. This was evident last Tuesday at Dallas, when Bernier blanked the Stars 4–0 during a game in which the Leafs were markedly out–skated. Nothing appeared to change over the Christmas hiatus, as the Leafs were badly out–worked, Sunday night, by Florida Panthers in a divisional clash at the BB&T Center. A deceptive 4–2 lead after 40 minutes turned into a 6–4 loss… and more concern that the club has set itself back 14 months.
THE MAPLE LEAFS WERE OUTWORKED BY THE PANTHERS IN FLORIDA ON SUNDAY NIGHT — CEDING A 4–2 ADVANTAGE IN THE FINAL 20 MINUTES. JOEL AUERBACH GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Through 36 games, it is obvious the Maple Leafs can score goals with any team in the league. This became clear during the 10–1–1 eruption when the club out–gunned some pretty good opposition (Tampa Bay, Detroit, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Anaheim) 51–27. As always, it is behind center–ice where the Leafs are most vulnerable — particularly when refusing to dial up their physical game. Scoring chances are nearly always generated by hustle and spadework in the defensive zone, where the Maple Leafs were exceptional during their month–long run.
The physical element is often underplayed in the Eastern Conference. Out west, it’s a different story, as I immediately noticed in a rare opportunity to watch Western teams collide last week in San Jose. The Sharks and St. Louis Blues battered one another from horn to horn in a playoff–like environment. Though not gifted with abundant size, the Leafs were quite rambunctious during their hot streak and it resulted in a flurry of points. Only since taking their foot off the pedal and becoming mesmerized by scoring chances have the Leafs begun to fail.
One would therefore conclude the problem is reversible, providing the message is heard. Randy Carlyle could not impart his will on the club when it most mattered a year ago. He’s done a terrific job with many different ears through the first half of this season. The Leafs proved immensely capable of rebounding from an acute malaise — the infamous 9–2 pounding by Nashville at Air Canada Centre, Nov. 18. Now, Carlyle faces something of a chronic issue for the first time in 2014–15. Bad habits have crept into the Leafs’ game, spawning visions of yesteryear.
Reversing the trend will have to come away from home, as the Leafs play 13 of their next 17 matches on foreign ice. Carlyle and his players will be constantly within sight of each other — at airports, hotels and arenas. Either an impenetrable bond will form, or a insoluble divide. We should know much better by the third week of February. Then will come crunch time, when the Leafs have commonly folded in recent years.
So, there’s lots of hockey to be played. And much to fall back on, pertaining to one of the best month–long performances in team history.
Which path will the Leafs follow?
It is anyone’s guess.
HEY, I’M STILL PINING FOR THIS…
WHAT A GREAT WEEK IT WAS IN SAN FRANCISCO!
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