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Islanders hammer the Leafs: that’s not what I was expecting….

Before the Leaf-Islander game on Thursday night, I “tweeted” that I saw the Leafs winning Thursday night.  Why?  I was certain that the players would have looked at themselves in the mirror over the previous 48 hours, recognizing they had “lucked” out a win Monday against the Devils, before being taken out handily by the Capitals in Washington Tuesday night.  With a playoff berth at their fingertips after a lot of hard work this season, I also figured Carlyle would have provided the right combination of chalk talk, inspiration, roster juggling and disapproval to right the lilting ship.

I anticipated that, as a result, the Leafs would come out flying and take the game to the visiting Islanders, themselves on the nervous edge of the playoff picture as they began a tough road trip.

I was right—but only for the first few minutes of the contest at the ACC.  After killing off a two-man disadvantage, accruing a 2-0 lead and engaging in the requisite Orr/McLaren fights only seconds apart, it all went downhill from there.

It was not that dissimilar to what happened in Washington.  Once the Isles started to score, the Leafs had no answer.  It would be easier to name the Leafs who stood out as playing really well in the final 53 minutes of that game as opposed to those who cut corners and generally did not distinguish themselves.  I won’t name names.  If you’d like to, go right ahead.

Listen, I’m not especially concerned or downhearted about this little mini-skid.  Now, I think we all recognize the team has not been at its best for a while, though they hammered the Habs last Saturday when Price struggled in goal.  We can all count, so we know the Leafs have been outshot too many nights this season (not that that is always an indicator of territorial advantage, etc.).  And yes, Reimer’s good play (and earlier, that of Scrivens) along with some good breaks has helped our record.  But goalies are expected to play well, eh?  The Leafs were winning games and showing plenty of good qualities in their overall play, as well.

If most of these guys were playing pretty well before, let me state that these guys are clearly not bums all of a sudden.  If you loved the way Kessel, JVR, Lupul, Phaneuf, McClement, Kadri, Franson, Fraser et al were playing a couple of weeks ago, for example, are these individuals all suddenly lousy players?  Of course not.

Still, a collective mini-malaise has kind of settled in this week, I’d say. Carlyle may feel—as he said in his post-game presser Thursday night—that fatigue is an excuse, but the guys have looked tired at times. And sometimes it’s extra hard to regain lost momentum when your legs just aren’t there any more (as in three games in four nights…).

That said, let me make a couple of minor points.  You may remember, if you’ve visited VLM over the past few weeks, that even in “good times” I have consistently said I was not “worried” about the blue and white, because they weren’t “good enough” just yet to really worry over, in fan terms.  That is not a criticism, simply an assessment that this team, while building toward hopefully a bright future, may yet be a ways off from being close to the teams of, say, the Quinn era.  You remember those days, when we were an automatic playoff team and when, some springs, we honest-to-goodness believed we had a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup.  And in 1999 and 2002, why wouldn’t we think that—especially given the teams we were playing those years in the semi-finals?

But my second point is that it has indeed been nice for the Leafs to do something few of us “expected” before this mini-season began—that is, make (surely we will…) the playoffs.

The Leafs are poised to do that while playing well enough to win games and entertain us many nights along the way. And with that has come, for me at least, the admittedly heady feeling that, hey, if this team plays hard and to its “potential” (and Reimer plays in the playoffs as he has at times this season), we could well surprise someone in the first round.  I’ve been saying forever no one in the East is unbeatable.  All teams have gone through their rough patches, all the Eastern teams have weaknesses and it is possible (though it's only two losses) that the Leafs are getting this lethargy out of their system before the playoffs.

So nothing has really changed for me.  Beyond the things I often mention here, like leadership and experience (which our young players will get in the playoffs) I’m not worried about this team.  In addition to what I just said above, I also believe they will rebound and play better at some point before the season ends. And I still think the Leafs can surprise people in the playoffs, despite the fact that some Leaf fans will be highly critical of Carlyle, particular players, and a host of related things in the days ahead. 

I may be critical as well at times because, when you post every day, you need something to write about.  But I just don’t see this is some big drama.  It’s two games. Yes, of course it would be nice to have officially wrapped up their spot by now, but that will come.

Maybe my more telling comment, and I’ll try to make it in the form of a question, is this:  if we fans were generally happy will all the players I listed above, and many others, including Reimer (of course, you say, given his play most of this season and notably after the trade deadline…), and if you think the team is not playing well now, who is struggling?  Someone must be.

Clearly we can see that not everyone is playing as well as before or, we wouldn’t be losing 10-3 over the last two games.  So who is off their game, and needs to find it, for the Leafs to get back to what they were: a hard team to play against, one that can create on offense and limit at least some of the high-end scoring chances for the opposition.

Again, I have some names in mind that may be struggling a bit, but I’ll leave it to you if you’d like to wade in on that topic.

From my perspective, I sense we’ll be fine.  Teams struggle at various points in a season, and I‘d rather see this now than two weeks from now.

How about you?


  1. What I saw tonight and in other recent games is that they really miss Carl Gunnarsson.

    Carl Gunnarsson turns Phaneuf into a plus player. Dion had a horrible plus/minus from the first part of the year but was turning it around with Carl and the team was winning.

    Tonight Phaneuf and Gardiner were each -2 despite the fact that Phaneuf had a goal and Gardiner had 2 assists.

    The Islanders are a decent and desperate team, but if Gunnarsson had been healthy, I think the Leafs would have tightened up after they were up two goals. I think they would have played defense well enough to squeak out a win.

  2. If Gunner returns and is healthy (and it sounds as though he hasn't been all season) and plays steadily like he can, you're absolutely right, DP. He can play important minutes, and in a generally reliable fashion. And yes, as this game went on, the Islanders seemed to want it a lot more.

  3. Hey Michael,

    I think dp has made a good point about them missing gunner.

    But I think if we have to talk about struggles then maybe the biggest name should be kadri, followed by in my controversial opinion the fraser-franson pairing, continued meh defensive play of gardiner, and finally the inability of the 1st line to be assertive in their own d-zone.

    The offence didn't come cause in some cases the bounces didn't go our ways and in some cases we were being too cute setting up plays that never ended in a shot or got blocked or were turned over.

    Thirdly i personally don't like some of the recent decisions made by randy Carlyle. He is shuffling the line up way too much in my opinion and giving spots to orr and McLaren both in a time when perhaps Hamilton and colbourne may be able to help more both defensively and offensively.

    Reimer was his usual self, good mostly but a few bad breaks going against him, which happen to the best of them - ask carey price - lol.

    Anon from Scarborough

  4. Interesting that you mention the Franson/Fraser pairing, Scarborough Anon. They have generally been pretty darn solid, but maybe not their best this week, agreed.

    As for Gardiner, we all see the immense skill; just wonder how he will handle the aggressive forecheck and physical pounding in the playoffs.

    Not to defend Carlyle. Coaches are not above criticism, but I think he's trying to get things going. Scotty Bowman used to shuffle his lines in game constantly.

    Mostly, the team seems to be in a mini-funk. Fatigue, mental and physical, I suppose. Some have missed defensive assignments, falling into old personal patterns (the first line, Kadri, etc.) There is time to get the intensity back. Thanks Scarborough Anon!

  5. One of the biggest things I absolutely do not understand about Carlyle is that he seems to insist on throwing out fighters (who then immediately fight) every time the Leafs go up by one or two. It kills momentum every single time, and it's incredibly frustrating to watch. Tonight it backfired immensely. A few years ago I remember when, in game six between the Penguins and Flyers, Carcillo accepted a challenge from Talbot despite being up 3-0 in the second period. We all know how that turned out - the Penguins stormed back and won 5-3 even though Carcillo won the fight.

    You've seen a lot of hockey. Much more than I have. Have you seen a Leafs coach repeatedly do or encourage this 'strategy' when the Buds have the lead? I understand if it's done to try and spark something when the team is trailing, but never have I seen it done with this much frequency when there is a lead.

  6. You raise what I think is a fair question, RJ. Thinking back to various Leaf coaches, Imlach liked rugged players, but that was a different era. There weren't really "staged" fights back then (though some don't like to call them that nowadays).

    Roger Neilson liked tough hockey, and had some big-time fighters on his roster, Leaf fans of that era will recall. And yes, there was sometimes an element of 'planned' fighting at times.

    Pat Burns (and Quinn, too) liked hard-edged teams but neither was into what we see nightly with Orr and MacLaren. It's one thing if fights truly "break out" in the heat of the moment, quite another to see this all the time.

    I acknowledge it is one of the things that has me a bit baffled. I like a lot about what Carlyle has done, and I recognize that the presence of these "enforcers" does seem to allow guys like Kadri to roam a bit freer with less fear of being hammered on a dirty play. But the flip side, in part, is what you mentioned above.

    To say the least it will be interesting to see who sits come playoff time. Then, physical hockey means winning battles and good, clean hits. That's how you will defeat the opposition mentally, wearing them down. But not usually by fighting. Thanks RJ.

  7. Hi Michael,

    What really surprises me in the last couple of games is personnel decisions. I am not sure why nor claim to know the real reasons but I am wondering why Carlyle has gone with his choices. Not considering the supposedly non fatigue factor, surely Frattin and MacArthur could replace at least one of Orr/McClaren since the there is really no need to dress both in the last two games, in particular the Washington game. I thought MacArthur played well and had some real good scoring chances prior being sat so I don't know why he was scratched.

    As much as I like Gardiner, he is not defensively ready right now considering the games he has played this season. Although I think offensively he better than Liles, defensively, he is much more of a liability. The fact that he and Liles play the same type of game and one that Carlyle's system is not particular tailored to all night, dressing both is both is not particularly good defensively. If you look at the D only Fraser is particularly defensively strong. O'Byrne is suppose to be the other defensive defenceman but I am not sure he has enough time understanding the system yet. Phaneuf and Franson are okay defensively but does not clear the puck particularly well nor physically strong.

    All that saying it that dressing both Gardiner and Liles when defensively we are weak is not....just dress Kotsa in place of one of them until Gunner gets back.

    As much as Carlyle said and perhaps for theatrics, they do look tired and the obvious one right now is Kadri when we compare it to the early season performance. Is he simply coming back from the meteoric rise? I don't know but he looks uncomfortable now.

    Momentum is a strange thing and clearly many don't have it right now with the exception of the Kessel line. I am very impressed last night with Kessel. Even as the game slipped away he was still at it...Saturday will be a BIG game. Win or lose they must not perform badly. If it was like the last 3, we are in trouble. I will be looking for some leadership to elevate everyone on the team. I believe this game will define the team and hopefully Dion can prove me wrong

  8. Thanks Lukas. As fans, we see what we see, and it's fair to make observations. As you say, we may be "wrong", and that's fine. But it's not unreasonable to make personal assessments, as you have today. Some guys may be playing hurt; others may be tiring. It may just be the stretch that all teams go through. Whatever, the Leafs can be better than this, and I believe they will be again. Momentum can turn quickly, as you allude to, and suddenly all is right again! We'll see how things go in Ottawa.

  9. It's obvious to me that Gardiner's defense is not where it should be. Last year he had it, of course work was needed to make him a true top NHL D-man. But this year he looks pretty bad on the defensive side. Maybee all the hype went to his head. "Free Gardiner" also didn't help much. He was dominant in the AHL and maybee thought the jump to the leafs would be natural and he'd keep on playing like usual, he looks overwhelmed at times.

    Someone else who has dissapeared is MacArthur. He needs to get something going for him and the team.

    Did anyone else get the feeling like our guys were thinking "oh no, here we go again" when the Isles tied the game. The guys from last year surely started thinking about the "18-wheeler".

    There are 4 games left, I think clinching the playoffs are just a formality, but as I like to say: stranger things have happened.

  10. It's funny how we, as fans, see things differently, portuguese leaf. Some love Gardiner and think the Leafs need him as a puck-moving defenseman. But others can't help but see the flaws in his game in his own end.

    It feels a bit similar when people talk about players like MacArthur. Some like his game, feel he does the little things well. Others think he is not contributing anywhere near what he can or should. Same player, just different ways of assessing their merits.

    Yes, stranger things have happened when it comes to things going south, but I think the Leafs right this ship. Thanks portuguese leaf!

  11. I agree that the Leafs should make the playoffs, but I'm certainly not taking it as a fait accompli - particularly in light of the way they're playing at the moment. The reason some of us are concerned is that we're seeing last season in microcosm at the moment - the sudden disappearance of what made them successful as the checking gets tighter and the games get more meaningful; the errant passes and poor clearing decisions; the low percentage plays up the middle; the indecision in the offensive zone; that "cute" factor on too many plays; and the terrible shots for/against ratio. I'm hoping we'll see a rejuvenated squad on Saturday...
    Something I truly don't understand is why McLaren and Orr have to fight. Why not skate away? In a situation like last night, a fight can't possibly help us. As it turned out, even though there wasn't a clear victor in either scrap, the fights did energize the Isles. I'd rather see Orr et al dish out the heavy checks on the forecheck and stay in the play.
    As for Gardiner, I continue in my belief he's a liability at this point. Not only does he make ill-timed forays into the offensive zone, often resulting in a turnover and his partner being left high and dry, but his decisions in the defensive zone aren't major league. Again, he was directly responsible for at least two goals last night, and I lost count of the turnovers. I'm fine with Gunner sitting out and getting healthy, but I don't expect to see Gardiner in the playoffs, if we make them.
    Kadri seems to be having trouble with the new-found attention he's getting. He and MacArthur seemed particularly ineffective last night - at one point I was startled that MacArthur was even playing, he'd been so quiet.
    We're being outwilled or outdesired to victory at the moment - something that will not stand us in good stead no matter how far we progress this season.

  12. I think you and I, Gerund O', are of the older school of thought that toughness doesn't necessarily mean fighting- it does mean fighting for pucks, being willing to take hits to make a play and being able to dish out big hits at the right moment without taking yourself out of the play. It means winning the puck and battling along the boards and in front of both nets.

    We both remember the really tough players in earlier eras and big hits and determination (e.g. Bob Gainey and Gary Roberts) hard more to do with their reputation for being "tough" as any fights they were involved in.

    There is time for the Leafs to get their mojo back, but Saturday night would be nice. Determination should never go into a "slump". Thanks Gerund.

    1. Amen, Michael.
      In fact, when the fourth line plays the hard forechecking game, they're effective and almost always generate a good scoring attempt or two. I'd also posit that they energize the other guys with shifts like that.
      Ah well...

  13. Along with DP and Scarborough anon, I'd have to say Gunnar is a significant part of the mix (even though he is playing at a lower level that we've seen before), therefore, Phaneuf seems 'out of sorts' and has been less steady with Gardiner.

    Also, I share the Kadri observations though they seem to coincide with the level of opposition that he is facing. Whether by Leaf design or opponent choice, he has been shut down for the last few games and that is a good thing when it comes to the pending financial assessment issues for his new contract.

    I was kind of hoping that he would be less sheltered as the season progresses and it is giving us a better sense of his progress (of course, the increased attention also coincides with the improvement on the 1st line... hmmmm).

    I don't think there are any 'glaring' issues with any player in particular, rather with everyone in general. They aren't supporting one another as effectively as earlier in the season. At least after Saturday there will be some time for coaching and video reminders to get back on track.

  14. The playoffs will be such a good opportunity to see all these guys in a new environment, InTimeFor62. The checking, the physicality, the lack of time and space, the pressure- it will all be on a different level than what most of this group is accustomed to. It will be invaluable for anyone who will be with this team going forward to experience that. And of course, it will be an opportunity as well for management and the coaching staff to see what they have in big games.

    You raise a good point about Kadri (and some others) and their contract status- and expectations. Management will know a lot more in a few weeks about who is worth what than they do now.

    Thanks, InTimeFor62....