The Maple Leafs' freefall continued Tuesday when they were manhandled – emphasis on “man” – 5-3 by the St. Louis Blues in a win that put another nail in the coffin of Toronto’s crumbling playoff hopes.
It truly was as if you were watching the reality show Pros vs. Joes for long stretches: the Leafs were dominated from the earliest moments of the night, yet somehow managed to score the game’s first goal 11:30 into the first period. But from that moment on, the visiting team at Air Canada Centre toyed with the Leafs as a cat does with a ball of yarn. They outshot Toronto 23-7 in the first frame and led 2-1 heading into the first intermission; they again outshot them 13-7 in the second and were up 4-1 after 40 minutes of play. And although the Leafs came alive to some degree in the latter half of the third period and made it a one-goal game with four minutes left in the third, it was far too late to come back, especially against a true Stanley Cup contender like St. Louis. David Backes scored into an empty net to record the hat trick and help the Blues reclaim first place overall in the NHL standings.
There was no goaltending controversy for the home side on the evening, as No. 1 Jonathan Bernier returned from a groin injury. But not even his presence could prevent Toronto from being utterly outclassed. If Bernier had been on the sidelines, the score could have been 12-2.
The Leafs’ problems began with captain Dion Phaneuf – who, in one of many miscues, was pushed over by Alex Steen in front of the net seconds before Steen scored to make it 4-1 – and included the play of Cody Franson, Carl Gunnarsson and most members of their forward unit who could only muster 25 shots on Ryan Miller.
They can attempt to find positivity in another third period push, but results are all that matter. These are the results that matter: the Leafs have now lost six straight games and for the first time since Jan. 14, they’re out of a playoff spot with just eight games remaining in the season and their next game Friday against Philly. That’s three whole days of massive angst and endless speculation in Leafs Land. And it’s all entirely on the players, coaches and management. By not making any moves at the trade deadline, GM Dave Nonis and his management team made the statement they were confident with the group they had. That confidence hasn’t been repaid by the players. Instead, Toronto is on the verge of another agonizing collapse that will almost assuredly result in major changes during the off-season.
For instance, everyone looks at head coach Randy Carlyle’s job security as being in jeopardy, but did you know the no-trade clause in Phaneuf’s recently signed contract extension doesn’t kick in until the extension does next season? You never want to make knee-jerk moves after horrific losses, but a few more games like this and Phaneuf will be in the crosshairs more than ever once the off-season begins. And he won't be alone. Nonis will have no choice but to make significant alterations.
In any case, it’s mostly homely in Toronto right now with the chance of all-out ugliness looking increasingly likely. And this isn’t the fans’ fault, or the fault of advanced stats proponents, or the local media’s fault. It’s the players’ fault and management’s fault.
If they enjoy playing with each other so much and want to keep it that way for the foreseeable future, the Leafs sure have a funny way of showing it.