On any given night in the NHL, one team is apt to hammer any other. The same can be said for any team sport, I suppose. (I remember that the year that Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl…they had lost to Oakland by a score of like 40-0 one Sunday afternoon during the regular-season. A few weeks later they were champions. Go figure.) So on the one hand, it’s not a shock that the Leafs might get their hats handed to them on the road against a good team, especially as a long and difficult second half of the season is drawing to a sometime painful close.
That said, one might have expected a bit more (something, eh?) from a team that had been receiving such rave reviews for its (Carlyle-induced? Does he still want to take credit?) improved defensive performance in recent days against Tampa Bay and Ottawa. James Reimer had played solidly in back-to-back outings, allowing but one late goal on both occasions in clear-cut, well-earned Maple Leaf victories.
Too, Toronto was in a position, with 10 games to go, to reasonably believe that a late spurt would bring them pretty darn close to a playoff spot—if not get them there—by the end of the regular-season. (They were only, if I’m not mistaken, 6 points back heading into the match-up with the Bruins.) And they are still playing to impress a new coach, of course, while also having had a day off to get ready for a Bruin team that had been slumping badly until their weekend victory over the Flyers. (And even in that contest, the Bruins could not hold on to a lead, giving up the tying goal late in the third period, I believe. They won in a shoot-out.)
Finally, the Leafs surely were “up” for this game for yet another reason: the Bruins had taken them out rather convincingly in the earlier match-ups this season. Put all this together, and one could (should?) have assumed Toronto would play this one with an edge and a lot of jump, for all the above reasons.
So the outcome, an 8-0 loss, left me with more questions than answers.
Or, maybe I already have my answers.
Those of you who happen upon this site fairly regularly will know that a central theme in my posting this season, even in “good times”, has been about the Leafs lacking “team toughness”. There is nothing fancy about what I’m talking about. No thorough statistical analysis. You likely know what I mean. It’s just having a team full of guys (or at least enough of them so that the rest of their teammates feel emboldened and play bigger than they are—or than they feel) who can grind, wear a team down...even a team that may have more skill and pop than us.
Now, I don’t expect a Maple Leaf team built on youth and a lot of free-wheeling speed to suddenly become rugged, or to be the toughest team in the league. (And as I keep saying here, I don’t mean fighting. I mean guys who will hit hard, yes, but will fight for loose pucks, battle along the boards, in the corners and in front of both nets. Players who check their man diligently, take a hit to make a play—those kinds of players. Like being a good defensive player, almost anyone who is willing can be that kind of player, whether they are highly-skilled or not. It’s a question of willpower and determination.)
In any event, I’m not prepared to look at one game in isolation and make grand pronouncements about how lousy the Leafs are. It was one game. But I won’t add what I often add, when I say, “It’s one game—nothing more, nothing less”.
In fact, a game like this may indeed mean something “more.”
As I was watching the clock wind down, Joe Bowen made the comment on the Sportsnet broadcast of the encounter that hit me a bit. Joe said, essentially, that everyone associated with the Leafs would remember this for a long time. At first I thought he was referring to this specific game, and perhaps hinting that the Bruins had run up the score. (I would argue that they actually backed off in the third period, and could have scored more…) But Bowen went on to speak of Leaf people remembering the entire season-series, and how the Bruins had, basically, overwhelmed the Leafs all season.
Yes, “pay back” is part of sports. And maybe some day, maybe some day soon, the Leafs will turn the tables on the now rugged Bruins, when Boston is going in the other direction. (This Bruin team will likely be in tough to repeat as Cup champions this spring. It’s an awfully long haul to do it two seasons in a row…)
But the first thing that came to mind when that comment was made was, well…this is not 2008-’09, the season when Burke took this team over and started turning over the roster. I would expect this sort of result with that team, perhaps. Nor is it 2009-’10, Burke’s first “full” season in charge of the blue and white. No, this is now three and a half years into his time here. This is his hand-picked team—drafted, traded for, his free-agents, his goalies, his draft picks, his deals, yes…his team. We can defend his moves and say it’s still early, but it’s really not. He has had time to build a playoff team.
And a team that is tougher—in the important areas I have listed— than this one.
Every guy on this team, in my view, is an NHL player. They have either the talent, the smarts or the desire to be here and play at this level. But I would say this: there are players on this team who are also lacking some combination of the above - talent, grit, smarts, determination- when things get tough.
And those traits are even more important when things go south. That was in evidence when the team went through that awful slide for six weeks over whatever it was and it was in evidence in a game like Monday night, when someone had to step up, (several guys, in fact, it can’t fall on one individual) respond and, through sheer determination and will, get the Leafs back into that game.
That didn’t happen during the “streak” and it didn’t happen against the Bruins.
I think the Leafs have some players—and I’ve discussed this in posts over the past two months, at least—who are simply no more than a fourth-line player. In fact, I wrote a while back that the Leafs have about 9 fourth-liners on this team. But more than that, I wonder: who would be the guys on this roster that would step up, lead, play through traffic and also hit and fight to get to the front of the net—come playoff time.
Maybe it is just as well that the Leafs don’t make the playoffs this spring. I have precious little doubt that they deserve it now. They don’t deserve a spot. I‘ve agreed with those who have suggested that it would be a good experience for the young Leaf players to find out what it’s like, to discover, perhaps through trial and failure, how difficult the playoff environment really is.
But if a late-season game, on the road, against a good team, could not create the energy level, the belief in self, the team toughness, the togetherness, to raise their level of play to a point where they are at least competitive, then, well, this team is is what it is.
And it isn't, therefore, just a case of a sudden, peculiar late-season “slide” that no one can explain. It is in fact that this team, as it is currently constituted, was and is not anywhere near good enough to make the playoffs, even in the mediocre Eastern Conference.
I have plenty more to say, and will look to step back and provide some further thoughts in the days ahead.
For tonight I will leave it there. I mostly want to hear your thoughts, and we’ll have lots to talk in the weeks and (summer) months ahead, as the Leafs continue, surely, to re-build the roster. It’s a roster that, on a night like Monday evening in Boston, simply could not compete with one of the best teams in the East—just as they haven’t been able to all season long.
Have your say. It’s your forum.