No...don't think so.
This game tonight was downright lousy.
In fact, it was such a poor team game, it doesn't even fulfill the requirements of a letdown. A letdown usually refers to a tough loss in which things just do not go right even backed by a solid "team effort".
This disaster of a loss was not a team effort by any means.
With injuries to playmakers Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang and veteran blue liners Paul Martin and Rob Scuderi, Pittsburgh instead called up half of his core from Scranton-Wilkes Barre and those kids each responded with strong, physical and SMART games against the stupid minded Maple Leafs.
The 'Baby Penguins" led by Chris Conner, Philip Samuelsson (son of the former Ulf Samuelsson), Zach Sill, Brian Dumoulin and the rest of the able-bodied Penguins completely out-played, out-muscled and out-worked a Toronto team fresh off an astounding 7-3 drumming of the 2013 champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Wow, these kids sure were afraid of the blue and white tonight, weren't they?
It is hard to believe that a team who displayed a ton of speed, skill and finally some ounce of confidence against two of the best teams in the NHL last week, would come out as flat as poorly made pancakes against a bunch of kids. And do not get me wrong, those youngsters played a hell of a game for the short handed Pens tonight and it must be thrilling for them and their parents watching them all play well and winning their first game in the NHL together for a lot of them.
Still, the Leafs should be ashamed of themselves, and any momentum that should have been gained from Saturday's biggest win in Toronto in years is pretty much gone and forgotten. And what could be even worse, gone to complete pot if the team returns home tomorrow and lays another egg against the Florida Panthers.
The blue and white returned to another game full of selfish, individual efforts outside of a small flurry created after Morgan Rielly was finally able to tally his first NHL goal on a power play.
The eventual game-winning goal was due to complete lack of communication and a conscious team defensive effort. After winning the draw, Jake Gardiner got to a loose puck along the boards and tried to slam it off the glass and down the ice. Again, why are the Leafs rushing the play so much? They have control of the puck, take your time and move it out safely. But no, Gardiner tries to blast the puck as hard as he can to God knows who, and instead of clearing the zone, the puck comes right to a wide open Sidney Crosby, all alone in the slot who cleanly beats Jonathan Bernier, who too, is not ready to make a play on the puck. Guys who should be reliable in their own zone simply are not; James van Riemsdyk, Jay McClement and Nikolai Kulemin are high tailing out of the zone thinking that the puck is way at the other end of the rink. This is the way dumb teams play. They think and do what they think or expect is going to happen. Good teams react to the play or the mistakes made by the dumb team and end up capitalizing. We have seen that against teams like the Kings, Blackhawks, Bruins, Blues, Predators and again tonight against the Penguins.
So a stupid, rushed play that doesn't even help the team in the first place in perhaps beating out a possible icing play thanks to the impatience of Gardiner leads to a horrible turnover in which #87 is left all alone in front of the goal. Wow! Talk about finding ways to lose games. Not just losing them, but giving games and valuable points away.
Similar to the 2011-2012 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are playing no different than they did under coach Ron Wilson. Those teams never had a team commitment to defensive zone hockey, and neither does this one. This is very frustrating seeing that the team seemed to buy into Randy Carlyle's more accountable system in the short 2013 season. Not only were the Leafs a solid defensive team, they were physical and tough to play against which made beating a team like Boston in the playoffs possible. This time, if the Leafs do not get back to that tough, gritty style, they would lose to Boston in 4 or 5 games not in OT of game 7.
In tonight's game, there were 13 Toronto players with minus ratings and it was just a 3-1 loss with an empty net goal allowed in the end. Judging from stats like that, it tells me that the team just does not want to work hard enough in its own zone. Until they do, this team will not be going anywhere for a while.
I have praised captain Dion Phaneuf much since the playoff series loss to the Boston Bruins, but his recent play and decision making on the ice has been very poor and costly. Your captain cannot get suspended with dirty hits late in a game that is lost. Your captain can ill afford to be putting his team into bad situations. And most of all, your captain cannot be scoring goals in your own net! Phaneuf has scored three goals against his own goalie in the past two games, but thankfully one of those was disallowed.
I did not think the Maple Leafs could survive in the near future without him seeing that his contract is up after this season, but I think it would be best for the team to move on and seek some new blood to take his place. If all else fails this season, nothing should hold GM Dave Nonis back in making some more drastic changes. As I have said before, Carl Gunnarsson is way too soft and irresponsible in his own zone. His hesitations and guessing what opposing forwards are going to do are also a severe hindrance to the defensive makeup of this team. Mark Fraser, coming off a solid first full season in the NHL with a team leading +18, has also been a major disappointment to the team. Toronto had thought it had finally found a tough, stay at home defenseman to clear out the crease. Instead, they get a kid who has played scared and is displaying zero confidence looking like a kid who was a minus 18 last season. Pretty sure that was a +18, because I cannot believe it either from watching him play. Some time with the AHL Marlies should do him some good to at least restore some confidence.
The team needs to realize what it has in Morgan Rielly and try to build some larger, experienced bodies around him and also hope that Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner get better with him. Same goes for Gunnarsson, but in his fifth season in the NHL, I doubt he is going to get any better.
Despite the rest of the Eastern Conference being so weak thus far, one has to admit the possibility of this team not reaching the playoffs after a promising short 2013 season. Big deal right, we've seen this so many times before. Frustrating. Disappointing. Same old story. Instead of seeing a team compete for the Eastern crown as it almost did about eight months ago, it seems as if Leaf Nation is right back down to square one. Nonis and company are going to have to decide between now and March which current Leafs are keepers and which ones are replaceable or areas that need to be upgraded. Obviously, the goaltending situation is stable for the foreseeable future and I too am satisfied with it as long as "sleepwalker" Bernier can wake up and help this team win more games instead of being part of the problem in finding ways to lose games lately. For me, the Leafs will need to build around the following players:
Phil Kessel- signed to an extension, explosive playmaker and goal scorer. Somewhat soft on the puck and prone to giveaways all over ice, more so in offensive end.
James van Riemsdyk- must be more of a physical force in the defensive end. Shows lots of scoring ability, can make the big plays when needed.
Tyler Bozak- needs to be healthy and keep being one of the teams' best two-way players.
Morgan Rielly- slick, fast flying defenseman a team needs to put its trust in and rebuild around.
Jake Gardiner- another solid skating puck moving defenseman, but does not understand his defensive responsibilities as much as he should. Needs to be paired with a veteran defenseman.
Cody Franson- must regain confidence and play to his capability. Needs to be a physical presence on the ice at all times and shoot the puck more.
James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier- young goaltenders will continue to battle for playing time and out-play each other. Must be able to steal games from time to time as they had earlier in October and November.
Joffrey Lupul- injured was too much and not dependable enough to be considered a core player, but also with an extension, Lupul provides some secondary scoring on the 2nd line.
David Clarkson- signed to a seven year deal, Clarkson must play the gritty, hard-nosed style and win battles along the board and also chip in a bit more offensively. Being suspended for 12 games so far is outlandish and his brain better start taking over more. Emotional player, love the attitude, but needs to relax, settle in and just let the game come to him.
Peter Holland- A bottom six center that can be interchangeable. Needs to stop taking stupid penalties and also let the game come to him. See what happened against Chicago!
Carl Gunnarrson- the front office loves him, the team loves him and the media loves him. God bless the Swede! However, he is not a top defensive pairing and should not be regarded as one. He is a bottom four or even two pairing on a very good team. Being paired with a journeyman blue liner, yet one that is still capable could help him.
With all that being said, the rest falls on Nonis and the front office. Guys like Jay McClement, Trevor Smith, Jerry D'Amigo, Mason Raymond, Paul Ranger and Nikolai Kulemin are fine for now, but those players and positions should be upgraded in the months to come.
Why did I not include Nazem Kadri? I hope things work out for him in Toronto, but the Maple Leafs are better off looking to trade the young playmaker for a prominent defenseman and perhaps more. Last season, there were games in which Kadri would simply take over games and become the best player on the ice by far and score some highlight reel goals and deliver some solid, non-violent, non-dirty hits on opposing players. This year, while some of the scoring touch is still there, his overall game has been a major disappointment. Kadri has started to become known as a dirty player and has even resorted to diving and embellishments. This part of his game is garbage and needs to go, or even his trade value will be worth jack squat.
Raymond should also be considered as a trade commodity in the near future as well. Toronto took a chance on the 28 year-old at just $1 million and has been a decent scorer for the Maple Leafs early on with 10 goals, 14 helpers and 8 power play points. A team in need of some scoring depth (i.e. Kings, Coyotes, Red Wings...) for the playoff stretch drive perhaps could use him as a rental, and in return give the Leafs some future considerations or a draft pick of some kind. There is no reason for the Leafs to hang onto the former Vancouver Canuck. Raymond is soft and does not possess much puck retention skill. He loses battles along the boards and outside of his speed and some scoring touch, is useless for a team that needs to be much more physical.
Toronto is struggling right now not necessarily because of poor defensive play, or a couple bad goals here and there or anything like that. The team is struggling because of its lack of both physical and mental toughness, and this includes confidence as well. Those important elements were definitely evident in Toronto's game last season, and if anyone doesn't believe me, just go back and see what happened down the stretch in February, March and into game seven in Boston. Yes, the team splattered in the final minutes of that seventh game, but look how far they had gotten. Personally, I thought the series was over before it started, and definitely thought the team was finished after losing game four in overtime at the Air Canada Centre. But that team refused to quit. They refused to go down without a fight. Right now that fight is not in them. They are fighting it inside their minds. Hopefully, that mental edge and confidence can be found and restored before this whole full season goes to pot. And believe it or not, time is starting to run out...