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These days, the Leafs are playing just well enough to lose…

There’s an expression I’ve heard many times, and while I’m not sure I understand it completely, I do think it makes sense:  a team is playing just well enough to lose.

And that’s how I’m seeing the Leafs after these last two games—playing OK, but just well enough to make it close—but still lose.  Against the Capitals on Sunday, the Leafs spotted Washington a 3-0 lead and made it awfully close in the end.  Tuesday night at the Joe Louis Arena, again the Leafs fell behind early, but they very nearly tied it up at two in the third period before Nazem Kadri’s goal power play goal was disallowed.

Two one-goal losses, especially at the end of an arduous road trip, should be no more disconcerting than Leaf wins are comforting on the nights when they perhaps haven’t been full measure for a victory.

I’ll just share a few observations on the Detroit encounter and let you comment, if so moved:

  • The Leafs needed some big saves from Reimer in the third period and didn’t get them. It was a bit of the opposite of the Washington game—there, Reimer struggled early but was dazzling as the game went on.  Here, it felt as though Toronto would make a comeback if they got the stops they needed.  They didn’t.
  • Detroit is not even close to being the team they were ten years ago, or even five years ago.  But they are well coached and on any given night are still a handful—even with their stars like Zetterberg and Datsyuk out of action.
  • Didn’t you get the impression Rielly and Gardiner have been working on that play (the one that Gardiner scored on to make it 2-1) for quite some time in practice?  The way they celebrated suggests it was the culmination of a well-hatched plan.
  • No Leaf player played under 7 minutes.
  • I wonder if the 7-defenseman approach that began before the Olympic break will be the Carlyle roadmap going forward?
  • If the Leaf forwards are going to have a bit of a cold spell, better now than three or four weeks from now.

Did the Leafs deserve to win in Detroit?  When you never have a lead, it’s tough to feel that they did.  Despite my comments above, if I were in Carlyle’s shoes, I’d go with Reimer again on Wednesday night at home against the Lightning, assuming Bernier is not quite ready.  Reimer has not been perfect these last two games, but I think he deserves a chance to see if he can steal a game at home. You've heard me say goalies need to have a chance to play a run of games, even when they struggle.

At the best of times teams often struggle in the first game back home after a long road trip.  And in this instance, the Leafs will have no rest at all. But I think they’ll show up against Tampa.


  1. Hi Michael.

    Very disappointed tonight. (actually, I slammed my laptop closed on the last Detroit goal in a fit of temper and stomped to the kitchen for a strong, hot cup of Tetley. I wonder if "non-drinking Leaf fan is an oxymoron--Tea doesn't help at all! Even Michael the cat avoided me.)

    The leafs had scored again when I opened it back up and they came close. I wonder what would have happened at the end had the ref not wrongly insisted on the face-off outside the zone.

    I am not very happy with Phil who contributed to the first goal. There will be turnovers when you are trying to create offense but he made no attempt what-so-ever to catch Nyquist. Kessel can skate with the best of them and might have a least caused Nyquist to rush his shot. Instead Phil did nothing at all and simply let him go.

    I get a kick out of Jake and Morgan. They are so fun to watch. Neither of them were happy with the living arrangements at first but they're like brothers now and seem to really enjoy playing together. It's pretty amusing.

    Playing "just good enough to lose" is exactly what the Leafs seem to be doing. A switch from "finding ways to win" which we saw early in the season. Maybe this is why we keep longing for Bolland's return. I thought Holland played well tonight. I'd still like to see Ashton. What a waste to call him up to sit, but playing 7 dmen does help keep Phaneuf's minutes down.

    I know this has been a rough trip, crossing time-zones, fighting the flu but at least the Leafs are home tomorrow. We stubborn Leaf fans will keep on hoping. Colleen

    1. Skating hard on the back check seems to be one of the most difficult things in hockey. If the player is exhausted, I get it, the legs just won't go. But it's interesting: whenever a player has an offensive chance (even at the end of a shift), they almost always seem to have a little extra kick! Not so easy when you are chasing down the puck-carrier...

      Gardiner and Rielly do seem to be the 'next wave' of Leaf difference-makers on the blueline. I think a few of us still get frustrated with Gardiner, but if we just focus on what he does well, there's lots to like.

      It has been a difficult trip- road trips always are, it seems. And not a lot of time before the playoffs begin. Thanks Colleen.

  2. Hi Michael
    I also feel the Leafs will show up against Tampa Bay and win. This time of year every game is so important that we can see 2 losses and we can drop in the standings in a hurry. Yet if we win the next 2 then we can jump back up.

    Throughout the league we see good teams get beat by underdogs especially non playoff teams as they seemingly have no pressure and play a loose game. We have seen the nyi edm Florida all beat teams that are much higher in the standings recently. So the margin of difference between the teams is less as we speak.

    I think our coaching staff very much sets the tone for games we play in. In Washington the PK covering Ovechkin and leaving players open in the slot was crucial to the loss. In Detroit after the Leafs got to within a goal they went back out with the same forwards to tie the game who looked apparently tired. Meanwhile, Kadri Raymond even try Clarkson to stand in front of the net being much fresher may have been a better approach.

    This leads me to my point. When is Carlyle going to play Bodie Ashton and McClement on the 4th line instead of 7 Defencemen. The top line looks a little burnt out as of late. If Carlyle hopes to get production from players.outside the top line he needs to put the other players in a better position for success so they can come through on the offence.

    My opinion on line combinations that i feel would make us more competative are putting Lupul Kadri and Raymond together as a true second line with speed and offensive flare. While going with Kuleman Clarkson and Holland on the 3rd line in a grinding role who may surprise and score as well.

    Just to change things up and see how it goes. It seems to have been a long time since we have won a blowout like 6 - 1. It would be nice tonight to see it happen.

    Every game has been with so much pressure for us. Also it is importance for our coaching staff to keep our players fresh down the stretch so that they may play some easier minutes.

    1. Playing with the extra defenseman is interesting, but it may be difficult to win a playoff series that way. It feels as though really good teams need to be able to count on four lines in the playoffs. Of course the urge is to play your top guys a lot, but they need rest, as you mention, BlueANDwhite.

      Like Colleen (above) I'd like to see Ashton in the lineup. He, Bodie and McClement provide a fourth line with different qualities- they can skate, check and play physically. The third line you mention makes sense, too.

  3. Hey Michael,

    I think both in Washington and Detroit, the Leafs' undoing was coming out of the gate flat and allowing the first goal(s). They've shown some great character in coming back late in games, but can't they get ready before the game starts too..?

    As for Detroit's organization, it is the model of good management, development, and coaching. But if "Hockeytown" can do it, why not the "Centre of the Hockey Universe?" I thought that was the plan when Burke came in, but I guess Nonis is kind of like Burke Light.

    I'm loving the Gardiner/Reilly pairing on the power play. Could they get more looks with the Kessel unit in the coming games?

    Seems like Phaneuf needs some rest, which may indeed keep the 7 D/11 forwards trend rolling.

    As for the forwards cooling off, I agree that now is better than later. I also feel like Kessel/Bozak/JVR have done their part pretty consistently without much support, so the past few games would have been a good time for secondary scoring to contribute more (at least the defense core brought some offense, if suspect defense..!) . I'm looking at you, Clarkson! And Kadri is just too good to be this quiet so often, especially getting all the time with Lupul. Let's have Kulemin back up on that line because it seems better with him, rather than Clarkson. I'll light a candle for Bolland's speedy recovery.

    You know I like Reims, so I hope he gets a chance to play tomorrow (maybe he can steal a game). Maybe Kessel gets a few bounces too; he was dangerous in Detroit, but Howard was definitely ready for him.

    My post about Leafs getting 95 points and an above-wildcard berth is looking dubious suddenly--if Tampa and Montreal keep it up, 95 may not be enough! Hopefully they'll suffer a few more losing streaks in the coming weeks, and the Leafs will go on a tear...

    Go Leafs!

  4. It has been said a number of times this year on this site by many of us that the Leafs will only go as far as their first line and their goaltending will take them. The runs of good form and the slumps of bad form have shown that to be bang on.

    Reimer made some great saves last night without a doubt. But even on the first goal he scored on himself. Yes, it was a breakaway and yes it was a fluke goal but that save would set the tone for the game. And then down 2-1 and pressing to give up the 3rd goal was a killer. Yes it was a 2 on 1 and there is no guarantee another goalie makes that save. Pucks were bouncing off him and he was doing his old looking all over for the puck deal after it bounces off him all night long.

    Kessel had lots of shots but did he really have a lot of scoring chances?? A couple good looks with shots but all in all the first line was under whelming for me and have been for a handful of games now since their last hot streak post Olympics. Perhaps JVR and Phil are wearing down a bit from the long grind of the season and the Olympics. Phil looked absolutely spent after every shift on the bench.

    They need more secondary scoring than just dman scoring they have been getting lately. Kadri and Lupul have not really done much of anything since the Oly break and the Leafs HAVE to have them going to have long term success.

    Rielly and Gardiner are great fun to watch on offense. Gardiner still scares the bejeezus out of me in our own end and neutral zone since it is a bit of a crap shoot which colour sweater he gives the puck to at times:))) It is hard to believe Rielly only just turned 20 years old. He gets good smart coaching and he is going to turn into one of the all time great Leaf dman and has a chance to be the best. Early days for him yet though and he will make some rookie mistakes but he already makes less than Gardiner.

    1. To me, Pep, Rielly is an astonishing talent. I won't go on and on (I opined before the season began that he should still be playing junior hockey), simply say that his ability to think ahead and also his uncanny skill when it comes to being able to turn a play around and head up ice at speed is stunning. If he stays healthy the ceiling is very high.

      I agree that the team will ultimately need more than goaltending and the first line producing. That will get you through a season perhaps, and maybe even a playoff round, but if you want to contend for a championship, teams need 20 guys working their tail off every night- and secondary scoring has to be part of the equation. I think the Leafs are working, but they seem to find a different issue every other night (slow out of the gate, giveaways, special teams, being outshot, etc.) that slows them down.

      All that said, they are still in a good position in the standings. A win against Tampa would help. Thanks Pep.

  5. Caryle's comment about Reimer being "just OK" was ridiculous. He's been fine since coming in for the second period against the Kings. We've known all along the goaltending competition would never be judged fairly, but there is no need to antagonize the player like this. With respect to Reimer, a spectacular performance like the two periods in L.A. are described as "he gave us a chance to win" when in fact he stole the game. Bernier gets that description for a slightly above average or even just an average game. We all know that Bernier will be playing again as soon as he's healthy, but calling out a player in public (especially when none of the recent losses can be blamed on him) cannot be helpful. Another questionable coaching move by Carlyle.

    I think it was the first goal that set the tone for the game. Kessel's blind pass wasn't particularly brilliant, but an offensive zone turnover shouldn't be a fatal error. Gleason should have backed off rather than trying to make the play at the blue line, which I think he realized a half second too late based on his half-hearted poke check attempt. Then Reimer did make the save on the ensuing breakaway, and it was nothing more than unfortunate that the puck bounced off his stick and went in.

    As I sometimes try to do, I'll end on a positive note. I have often been critical of Jake Gardiner. I'm still somewhat skeptical about the need for a defenceman whose defensive play is the weakest aspect of his game. However, over the last few games his offensive skills have been on full display and I'm starting to wonder if they are not reaching the level where they offset his poorer defensive play.

    1. I try at this point to not even get into the Reimer situation, Oliver. It's a no-win for him. If he steals a game, as he did in LA after a long layoff, he gets a perfunctory pat on the back from the coach in public. "Daming with faint praise" is the phrase that obviously comes to mind.

      When he is not perfect, the brass immediately puts the blame and onus on him. It is odd, but as I say, that's why I';ve given up on the situation. Everyone keeps saying "isn't it great the Leafs have two goalies",. But I am absolutely convinced Reimer will want out of here- not because he doesn't love being a Maple Leaf, but no proud athlete can handle what has been throw at Reimer. He wants - and needs - to play a lot, like any goalie, to be sharp. This is his longest stretch of games in forever, and it's not because the coaching t=staff wants it this way- they haven't really had a choice.

      On Gardiner, I think we are seeing some of that skill turn to offensive production. The only caution is we may have an entirely different perspective in a week, given some of the defensive issues (l see him being outmuscled, etc. in his own zone too often for my liking- that's where we will need him to be strong against tough forwards in the playoffs) that are still present. Thanks Oliver.

  6. I think we all agree that the Red Wings have long been the standard for NHL clubs that are not only competitive every year but actually have a shot at winning a championship, Matt. That said, they may finally be at the end of a 20+ year run of excellence. We'll see.

    I'd like to see Reimer get a chance to redeem himself tonight, but I'm not sure that's what Carlyle is thinking.

    95 points may indeed be an important number- as you note, teams get hot and cold (look a the the Bruins now, that won't last) and if Montreal or Tampa slide, the Leafs should be fine. Thanks for posting, Matt.

    1. I agree that Reimer deserves the chance tonight as well.

  7. Overall, I did not walk away from watching last night's game unsatisfied. Keeping in mind that it was the end of a long road trip, including two gutsy victories in California, they did remain in this game throughout. The top line has been quiet of late, which I think is most expected when you play five straight games against clubs having the final line change to match up against you. Even with that disadvantage, they got some great chances last night.

    Reimer could have stolen this game, yes, but I won't get all on his case for one performance. He's lost the top job, and he knows as much as everyone else that he's just keeping the crease warm for Bernier. That second goal was simply an unbelievable play and shot.

    Aside from a couple flubs by Gleason, who did in fact bounce back after a shaky first half of the game, the team was competitive throughout. Rielly and Gardiner are clicking much better than we could have imagined early on, and are playing with confidence and appear to have been given the green light by Carlyle to play to their style. It seems so unfair to have to come right back to play tonight at home, but this is a good time to make a statement going in to the home stretch.

    1. Most nights the Leafs are neither blowing out or getting blown out by the opposition, Pete. Sometimes the puck doesn't go in the net, but by and large they are in every game.

      I think most of the guys are playing their "roles" as expected. Not perfectly but generally capably. The real test comes from now on in into the playoffs. Thanks Pete.

  8. I've always thought that the comment, with which you headlined the article, is really an attempt to actually say: "the team is playing well enough to just lose" in that, they are on the cusp of a win, but just under the threshold for success.

    It was fun to see the youthful exuberance of success on that bank pass for the lovely finishing touch by Gardiner... made me smile and chuckle a bit!

    I think the 7 D-man approach is really helping keep the minutes down for Phaneuf (who seems a little banged up since shortly after the Olympic break) and for Ranger, who seems to be finding his role far more consistently since his return to the lineup.

    The latter is beginning to show me signs of the value I felt he could bring to the lineup. It seems that he's been asked to focus upon his defensive game and that has reigned in some of the gaffs that came with his offensive forays early in the season. I hope this will translate to an effective 2 way game, if both parties can find a contract value that works for next season. Even with all the 'farm hands' nearing a 'shot in the show', I still think Ranger could find a spot in the mix going forward, just have to wait and see what happens with Franson (and possibly Gunnar), too.

    As much as the 7 D may be helping the defense, I hope there's a little flexibility to cut the minutes for the top line (by playing a reasonable 4th line somewhere down the stretch). Perhaps that's the plan for Bolland if/when he returns for a few games before the playoffs...

    This stretch without Bernier may be just the tonic to get James back on his game... when he went in the net in LA (after a lack of support when he started the previous game), he seemed to be much more calm than when he knows he's starting. It just seems like he's carrying a big weight trying to 'prove himself' again, so his effort leads to more 'scrambly' play, where his early season success is not duplicated, even if his effort is much more 'energetic' it doesn't appear to be helping him 'absorb' the puck like in October (and periods 2 & 3 in LA).

    Looking for a better effort from the forwards on the backcheck/ own zone coverage and a positive outcome tonight. Thanks for the thought-provoking article, Michael.

    1. I think that guys like Ranger (and Clarkson), who have been somewhat off the radar much of the season, may be important contributors in the playoffs, InTimeFor62. Bolland as well, assuming he returns in time to be truly healthy come playoff time.

      We all know depth matters- you need 8 to 10 defensemen who are ready to play minutes at a moment's notice once the playoffs hit. And you need forwards who can play roles. The Leafs have depth in both areas, and while there may be some roster holes, none are insurmountable, I don't think, in a playoff match-up.

  9. "Playing well enough to lose" is an apt description of the team these last two games, for sure. "Glass half-full or half-empty" is my phrase to describe the Leafs this year!
    What we've seen since the Olympic break is teams putting on their playoff suits - tighter defence, a bit more hitting. And it's worrisome at the moment, because many of the problems that have bedevilled the Leafs all year are still wreaking havoc - and causing losses: bad first periods; lazy turnovers; underperforming second line; no fourth line that actually plays, weak PK; low percentage of faceoff wins, etc. Leaves a fan feeling a little queasy!
    I must admit I'm amazed that Detroit can have half their roster be minor-leaguers and still beat us. Aagghh! How long, lord, how long? And I don't buy the long road trip/flu/compressed schedule excuses. We had two days off before Washington and a day before Detroit. The playoff schedule will be more punishing than that - if we make the playoffs!
    I've been saying "if" we make the playoffs, when we discuss them here, because I'm not convinced this team will get there. And recently, it seems we can be beaten if you shut down our first line and draw us into taking penalties. There've been improvements, to be sure - the D looks more assured to me these days, and I won't fault the goaltending. It looks like we won't get to see a single game played by the team management envisaged last fall, but that's been the case for so long, I'd expect we'd have come up with a solution by now.
    I'll know our team has taken strides when we definitively win a playoff spot, and don't just back into one - which is currently where we're headed... again. And if that's not the definition of "half-full/half-empty"...

    1. You hit the nail on the head, Gerund O'- the Leafs one moment are scintillating, making us scratch their heads the next. I guess that's the way of the hockey world now- teams look unbeatable when they're hot, and like they'll never win a game again when they struggle.

      Detroit impressed me, too- did you see their list of key guys not able to play? Yet they keep battling.

      There are some good things in Toronto's play, as people have cited here. But they will need to be better off the hop, and get contributions from the second and third lines once the playoffs hit. Thanks Gerund.

  10. I think this whole post and discussion applies even more after last nights game against TB. I borrowed Gerund's glass but spilled a bit so it is now only 4/5 full. 2 weeks ago the Leafs were fully ensconced in 2nd place in the division and looking like a team getting ready to perhaps even host the first round of the playoffs. Now they are only 4 points out of not making the playoffs. If that happens I see upheaval as I don't see any way Carlyle should keep his job in that situation.

  11. I agree with Pep. It looks to me that the players are likely tuning out Carlyle. After 2 years the team's defense is atrocious, we didn't think it could get worse but it did. When a goalie has a .936 average over the last three games and is "just okay", when no one picks up the arguably the best scorer in the league not once but three times, when the coaching staff is going over the plays and no one is paying any attention, there's something very wrong.

    I believe this is a good team and I expect the Leafs will be better in the next few games and I'll still be surprised if they miss the playoffs but no one is really playing to their potential. Certain players like Lupul, Reimer and a few of their UFA's may want out by summer. It's always been very clear who the favourites are and if you're one of them life as a Leaf is grand. Not so for the rest. C.N.