Leafs Nation in uproar over latest skid
March, 25, 2014
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com
TORONTO -- Phil Kessel slammed his stick on the ice Tuesday morning and muttered words that began with the letters "W," "T" and "F" loud enough for most of us to hear in the stands at Air Canada Centre.
A simple drill went awry when Tyler Bozak's pass didn't get to him, and Kessel was displaying his frustration.
There's been a lot of that lately in these parts.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, in case you haven't heard, have lost five straight games in regulation and put their playoff aspirations in danger, all the while fueling downright panic and anger among a legion of fans who have had decades of torture to deal with.
Not to mention last spring's Game 7 collapse against the Boston Bruins, thank you very much.
Well, perhaps there's help on the way, with Jonathan Bernier taking shots in the starter's net Tuesday morning and looking very much agile and loose in doing so, his injured groin seemingly healed. Or close enough to it? He also was first off the ice, the traditional telltale sign he's starting Tuesday night.
Mind you, head coach Randy Carlyle stopped short of declaring Bernier back.
"I haven't gotten that yet from the medical staff," Carlyle said of getting the green light. "When I do, we'll make a decision."
On a team that has been abysmal defensively, Bernier has been a savior on many nights, and his presence back in the Leafs' net would undoubtedly be a boost to his teammates, who are dealing with fragile confidence and are just one point away from the danger zone in the playoff race.
"Bernie, if in fact he is back, I don't know, but he's been great for us all year, there's no question," checking center Jay McClement said after the morning skate. "He's a calm presence back there. Obviously, it'll be a boost for us. No disrespect to Reims, Reims has played great for the most part of the year, but we're going through a tough stretch right now and any jump or any bit of bump in our mood in here will help."
James Reimer has been the scapegoat for Toronto's five-game slide, and while he undoubtedly has struggled, it's only been part of the problem, not all of it, as some would have you believe. The defensive coverage over this stretch has reached a new low. Odd-man rushes, lack of back pressure from the forwards, defensemen being caught up ice -- you name it and it's been happening.
So, yes, while Bernier has been the better goalie all season and would provide an upgrade Tuesday night versus the powerhouse St. Louis Blues, his teammates tightening things up and making better decisions with the puck would also be of great help.
Especially on this night, when the Leafs are facing a Blues team that protects the puck as well as any club and makes you pay for turnovers.
"We're playing a team that forces you to earn your space on the ice," Carlyle said. "The key for us to be effective is that we have to execute in transition from our own zone to the neutral zone to get a forecheck going. They have a system that they play to try to impede your progress through the neutral ice. I don't think it's any secret that they're a hard-trapping team, they like to play in your face and make you earn your space."
In other words, the kind of team Carlyle had in Anaheim in 2007 when he was winning a Cup, and the kind of team he wishes he had now, no doubt.
Jealous of what he sees in the Blues?
"'Jealous' is a bad word, 'envious' is another bad word," Carlyle said. "You get what you've earned, and you've got a hockey club that has some strengths. Again, when you look at teams that are 100-point teams, they're doing some things that I think we can do and we should do. They're doing them at a higher level than we are."
The Leafs have given up the first goal in seven straight games, so just scoring first would be a huge deal Tuesday night, especially against a Blues team that's not only third-best in the NHL in goals against, but that is 39-2-5 when scoring first this season. Mercy.
Not sure scoring first has ever meant so much in one single game as it will for the Leafs on Tuesday night. If anything, just to get the home crowd on board.
You really have to live in this city to feel what it's like right now. Leaf fans lived through a late-season collapse in 2011-12, then had the Game 7 nightmare last spring. The level of angst on radio talk shows and social media platforms is through the roof.
Which is no excuse for the morons on Twitter who went after Reimer's wife over the weekend because of Reimer's play.
"I'm very fortunate to be married to her; she's got a tough skin and she handled it fine," Reimer said Tuesday morning.
Still, it crossed the line.
"Yeah, of course," Reimer said. "If you're disappointed in the way I play, come to me, tell me; don't go to someone's wife or family. Especially hiding behind a phone, do you know what I mean? It's unfortunate, but it is what it is. If that's what you got to do to feel good about yourself, then that's what you got to do."
There wasn't Twitter when Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo were members of the Maple Leafs years ago, but both Blues players definitely understand what the Leafs are going through in this passionate market right now.
"We've been here the last few days and it's all we've been hearing about," Colaiacovo said Tuesday morning. "It's tough when you're a player, it's tough when you're a coach, it's tough when you're anybody with the organization. I can understand the frustration of the fans, but there's still a lot of hockey to be played here and anything can happen. I'm glad it's something I don't deal with [anymore]. We don't want to make that a focus in our own room here, we have our own things to focus on."
Steen said it's tough but, on the other hand, you become better for it.
"It actually helped me tremendously in my career playing here for a while," the Swedish Olympic silver medalist said. "I never took it as pressure. But when you need a break, it's tough to get that little break. But at the same time, it's something you learn. I'm sure those guys are doing a good job of keeping the things they can't control out of their minds and out of their room."
A win Tuesday night would help. Big time.