After two straight losses of the exact same score, people in Leaf Land are left wondering just what went wrong. You actually have to admire those who don’t use the injury excuse, or the excuse that the team has seemingly dealt with suspensions every week for the past month, truth be told, the team is in desperate need of something. I think it’s leadership.
What happens when you have 18-22 guys sitting in a dressing room, each bringing their own set of talents and abilities to the team, yet nobody can actually lead the team out onto the ice every night. Every championship team has one of those guys. Leafs had it years back when Doug Gilmour was acquired via trade, but have never really had one since. Wendel Clark had done a swell job too and they both played around the same time, but no real good ones since then. New Jersey had a good one in Scott Stevens around the same time, and Detroit had a boy wonder in Steve Yzerman. Now it seems like the team captains of the NHL are getting a lot younger. The guy in Colorado is 21-22 years of age, and then you look at how they are doing, and if you are a Leaf fan, you are jealous.
Back-to-back games this week, yesterday and Monday, Leafs play two very winnable games, and come up short in both of them. Injury-depleted Penguins, and the no-name Panthers. In the Panthers game two guys whom I bet you have never heard of scored goals, Aleksander Barkov and Sean Bergenheim. Leafs managed only one goal in both games and both goals were basically solo efforts. Morgan Reilly with his first as an NHLer, and Mason Raymond last night.
This team is lacking some serious chemistry, all across the board. The goaltending used to be stellar, now it is not. Mind you they aren’t getting much help from their defenceman. James Reimer took an unusual penalty call last night, holding Tomas Kopecky. Weird penalty to take, but okay, all he had to do was help kill it off, Florida nearly made him pay, but he made quite the leg stop with his right pad, and wound up killing off his own penalty.
Goaltending counterpart Jonathan Bernier got into it a little bit Monday night in Pittsburgh when he bowled over an attacking Penguin forward. Check my blog from yesterday if you missed it. It was awesome, but nobody really cares because they didn’t win the game.
Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim and Brad Boyes scored for the Panthers (13-17-5), who won their fourth straight and sixth in their past seven games. With the victory, Florida crept to within six points of Toronto for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Panthers certainly showed more consistency Tuesday than the Leafs, who couldn’t get much of an attack going until the third period when Raymond’s goal broke up Scott Clemmensen’s shutout and cut the deficit to two goals.
“We just didn’t play well enough. That’s the bottom line,” Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said. “We take pride in being a team that doesn’t get outworked. Tonight we were outworked.”
Couple that with mistakes at inopportune times and the result was the Leafs’ 12th loss in 18 games at Air Canada Centre this season. Each of Florida’s goals came as a result of a noticeable turnover.
MORE ERRORS THAN…
Never before have I seen so many errors committed so early in the game, if you happened to be one of the late-arrivers to the Air Canada Centre last night, hopefully you missed them all, but no doubt heard about it later.
Centre Nazem Kadri was the first Leafs player to make a costly error, before some of the 19,076 fans even settled into their seats. Kadri lost the puck at the Panthers’ blue-line, and seconds later Fleischmann had a jump on Carl Gunnarsson and beat Reimer to make it 1-0 just 3:29 in.
Sloppy play continued, but it didn’t hurt the Leafs again until a disastrous defensive-zone shift in the second.
Defenceman Jake Gardiner put the puck right on Bergenheim’s stick, but Reimer made a stop to keep the threat at bay.
When the Leafs couldn’t clear it, Bergenheim got it back in front and scored 5:54 into the second.
Boos predictably followed, and then continued when Phaneuf’s turnover directly contributed to the Panthers’ third goal of the game. Boyes poked the puck away from Phaneuf and scored seconds later on his own rebound thanks to some help from Bergenheim in front.
“I made some mistakes tonight that are unacceptable,” Phaneuf said. “Take responsibility for it.”
It could’ve been even uglier had the Panthers converted on a short-handed odd-man rush in the third period. Shawn Matthias missed a wide-open net, and Toronto didn’t have to stare down a four-goal deficit.
It was also another one of those game where Toronto actually managed to outshoot their opponents, but lost the game. Leafs outshot the Panthers by 29-23.
Clemmensen, who made 28 saves for the victory, was hardly stressed for most of the game. The veteran netminder acknowledged, as did Horachek and other Panthers players, that the Leafs were tired.
This was their third victory in the past two weeks against a team being featured on HBO’s “24/7” program. Florida beat the Detroit Red Wings on Dec. 7 and Dec. 10.
Centre Trevor Smith broke a bone in his right hand when blocking a shot from the Panthers’ Shawn Matthias in the third period, Carlyle said. Smith has four goals and five assists in 24 games this season. It is expected that Jerred Smithson will rejoin the team.
Last year’s Calder Trophy winner, Jonathan Huberdeau, missed his second straight game with a foot injury. Horachek said the Saint-Jerome, Que., native could have played and is hopefully on target to be in the lineup Thursday when Florida visits the Ottawa Senators.
Toronto has another home game this week when the Phoenix Coyotes come to town on Thursday night. The Coyotes are bringing their 18-10-5 record to the Air Canada Centre where they have always presented problems for the Leafs. Phoenix currently sits in sixth place in the West Pacific Division and have a comfortable 10-point lead on Calgary.
IN OTHER NEWS
Leafs defenceman Morgan Reilly will remain with the NHL club during the World Junior Hockey Tournament this year, the team announced this morning.