The Toronto Maple Leafs are in enough of a fishbowl in the self-proclaimed center of the hockey universe. It’s only going to get worse next week when the HBO cameras arrive to film their every move for “24/7,” the acclaimed show that will chronicle the Leafs and Detroit Red Wings heading into the Jan. 1 Winter Classic.
The Leafs were supposed to be having a breakout season. Sure, the disappointment was harsh in the wake of that Game Seven choke in Boston last May. But that was just a beginning. Before the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, as the thinking went, they blew a 3-0 series lead to Philadelphia the previous spring.
You need to stub your collective toe before you stage a big march forward. Or so the Leafs said. The problem is they’re not taking that step. They’re stuck in the mud right now and those cameras might get an eyeful.
After a 10-4 October, the Leafs are now 4-5-3 in November after Friday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Sabres. When things don’t go your way, officiating seems to get magnified too. The Leafs were furious there was no tripping call on Matt D’Agostini for his hellacious rush back to up-end James van Riemsdyk on a short-handed breakaway with 21 seconds left.
“Unless we’re playing football, I don’t know,” Van Riemsdyk cracked when asked if he felt the play should have been a penalty. “Definitely frustrating.”
Coach Randy Carlyle said he was OK there was no penalty shot called on the play but was equally baffled at no trip, even though replays showed D’Agostini got the puck first and a no-call was probably the right one.
“I thought it should have been a penalty for taking the player’s knees out but they didn’t make the call,” Carlyle said.
The Leafs had given up 11 goals in their previous two games, a 6-0 home disaster against Columbus and Wednesday’s 6-5 shootout loss at Pittsburgh. They blew a 4-1 lead in that game, just like that nightmare nearly seven months ago in Boston. But they tightened that up, to the delight of Toronto fans who were everywhere in the house Friday night.
Sabres fans clearly took advantage of platinum prices to fleece folks from north of the border and use the money for some Black Friday shopping. The Leaf fans were thus more dominant at a Buffalo home game than just about any time I’ve ever seen. Leafs fans take over the Sabres’ building and the Bills take their game to Rogers Centre. Nice weekend, eh?
But no matter how many folks had the Blue and White jerseys on and how loud they were, you know they’re concerned.
The Leafs were outshot, 17-0, in the third period Wednesday by the Penguins – their first shotless period since a 2000 game against the Sabres. For good measure, they didn’t get a shot in overtime either. It was a baffling performance.
Canadian television showed a funny clip from the Leafs’ practice here Thursday where Carlyle was channeling his inner Nancy Kerrigan with three straight howls of “Why? Why? Why?” at center Nazem Kadri. Who knows what HBO might catch him saying?
“I don’t think you need rocket science to figure out that if you continue to give up five and six goals, you’re not going to get many points,” Carlyle said.
He seemed to get the response he wanted for the first 25 minutes Friday night. The second period was back to more of what the coach called “receiving the game” rather than dictating it, but the Leafs were pretty good again in the third.
They had 29 hits in the game and sacrificed themselves to block 26 shots. The effort was plainly there. Execution wasn’t. Again.
That’s two wins for the Sabres against the Leafs here in two weeks – and 13 in the last 15 meetings since 2008. Bizarre.
The Leafs’ young players – think Kadri, and defensemen Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson – seem to have stagnated and not shown much improvement. Phil Kessel and captain Dion Phaneuf, who is plus-12, have been good. They need more help.
“You don’t want to be too high or too low,” Van Riemsdyk said. “We’re in a decent position still, with a lot of games left. We have to keep trying to find ways to figure out what’s going wrong.”
The Leafs are in Montreal tonight. Then it’s on to December, when the world will see everything about them.
They need a quick turnaround. Because we’re about to watch every little detail. And it may not be pretty.