Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Cross Checks [Print without images]

Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Debate: Why are the Leafs so lost?


Today the fellas take a look at the Leafs and why they are, despite a free fall, still in the playoff mix. Have at it, boys.

BURNSIDE: Well, my friend, the Toronto Maple Leafs sure got a lesson in reality Tuesday night as the Boston Bruins beat them for the fifth straight time this season, 5-4. The score flattered the Leafs, who chased the game all night and were undone by scatterbrained defensive play and mediocre goaltending, as they have been so many times since the lockout. On this night it was Jonas Gustavsson allowing all five goals on 33 shots. But the performance, coming after Saturday's nice win for new head coach Randy Carlyle in Montreal in his first game since taking over for former coach Ron Wilson, illustrated just how far the Leafs have to go to be considered a legitimate playoff team. Yes, the Leafs could bounce back and make the playoffs this spring, but Tuesday’s loss against a Boston team that has been just ordinary of late is a good measuring stick, and the Leafs don’t measure up in many ways. Their problems, as they affect making a late push this season (they are five points out of eighth place and sit in 12th place as of Wednesday morning), appear to be exacerbated by the losses of Joffrey Lupul (gone for four weeks with a separated shoulder) and Colby Armstrong (day-to-day with a broken nose) to injury. Toronto now heads to Pittsburgh for a date with the red-hot Penguins on Wednesday night. So it doesn’t get any easier for Carlyle and the Leafs.

LEBRUN: No question, Carlyle’s No. 1 area of focus is defensive coverage. In every practice with his new players, that’s a priority. After all, he’s not here to fix the offense, which is ranked seventh in the NHL. It’s that 28th-place defense that scares him.

I took in Tuesday night’s game in Toronto, and the Leafs' coach didn’t sugarcoat the issue afterward.

“We’ve got enough goals to win the hockey game,” Carlyle told the assembled media. “It’s the defensive aspect that needs to be improved upon.”

The Leafs look utterly lost in their own zone at times, leaving Bruins players unmarked. It’s just unacceptable at this time of year when you’re trying to make the playoffs.

"I think we deteriorated in some defensive situations where we were there, but we weren’t strong enough on the puck," Carlyle said. "If you look where the goals were scored from, those weren’t tough enough areas from a defending standpoint from our hockey club."

And now with Lupul out at least for Wednesday night’s game in Pittsburgh and perhaps longer, it’s looking dim for Toronto.

BURNSIDE: The Leafs are a mess, no doubt about that. Although if they can somehow summon up two points Wednesday night, their view of the playoff world will look a lot different when we chat Thursday. That's the way of the NHL at this time of the year and is what makes these races so compelling, even if we’re talking about deeply flawed teams. The Bruins have to be happy with the outcome Tuesday night, although I wouldn’t say that beating a Toronto team they’ve owned all season would suggest a corner turned, especially with Ottawa continuing to breathe down the Bruins’ neck. The Sens waxed Tampa 7-3, but the biggest blow for the surging Lightning might have been the loss of netminder Mathieu Garon, who has been so good for the Lightning as they’ve clawed their way back into the playoff hunt. Dwayne Roloson allowed five goals on 30 shots to take the loss. Erik Karlsson scored again for the surprising Sens, further complicating the Norris Trophy deliberations you and I will undertake in less than a month, while Milan Michalek scored three in the third and added an assist in the first. It kind of makes you forget the Dany Heatley part of the Dany Heatley trade of a couple of years ago, no? The Sens are just three points back of Boston, although they’ve played three more games. But their continued strong play has created a situation where there is really only one playoff berth at play for about five teams in the Eastern Conference.

LEBRUN: First, the Bruins. I caught up with my pick for the Selke Trophy this season, Patrice Bergeron, after the game. Bergeron said his team has been struggling with consistency for the past month and hopes there are signs now of late that they’re coming out of it.

"The game against the Rangers, we had a good effort even though we didn’t get the result we wanted," Bergeron told ESPN.com. "We want to establish some consistency, that’s something we’ve talked about a lot over the past month. It wasn’t there over the past month. I think tonight was an effort we could build on and move forward.’’

Head coach Claude Julien talked about seeing signs over the past two games that his team could be rediscovering its identity.

"We didn't win the Stanley Cup because one player was great," Julien said. "It was about committee, and everybody participated at some point. This is what we need to rediscover again. If we want to find that identity that we had last year, we've got to start by getting our work ethic back to that level and keep pushing for each other, keep working hard, and at the end of the night tell yourself that you outworked the other team."

As for the surprising Senators, how about Ben Bishop getting his first win in goal? Certainly glad I picked him up last week in our media fantasy league. I spoke with Sens GM Bryan Murray before the game Tuesday, and he said that part of the trade with St. Louis and getting Bishop to sign a one-year contract extension (he would have been an unrestricted free agent July 1) was that he promised the agent that Bishop would get to play regular-season games down the stretch for Ottawa. I really think Sens fans are going to like this trade. Bishop has great promise.

BURNSIDE: Bishop became expendable in St. Louis because the Blues happen to have the top goaltending tandem in the NHL in Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak. The two are running away with the team goaltending award and have combined for 12 shutouts this season. The Blues didn’t shut out Chicago on Tuesday, but they did spank them 5-1 to take over the top spot in the Western Conference. St. Louis is one point ahead of Vancouver, which was beaten soundly by 5-2 by Dallas on Tuesday night. The Blues don’t have a 20-goal scorer, and no one is approaching a point per game offensively. Yet they seem absolutely comfortable with scoring by committee and the knowledge that their goaltending and team defense give them a chance to win every game regardless of how many goals they score. It's hard to get your head around the idea that the Blues might not only take the Central Division crown -- they lead suddenly slumping Detroit by two points after the Wings dropped a 3-2 decision in Philadelphia on Mark Howe’s special night -- but also end up with the top seed in the conference and possibly a Presidents' Trophy as the top team in the regular season. Although we’ve all shown great admiration for the job GM Doug Armstrong and coach Ken Hitchcock have done this season, I’m not sure that the Blues have been considered a legitimate Stanley Cup threat. In some ways, they remind me of the Bruins of a year ago in that they are without an identifiable offensive anchor but have many players capable of contributing on a number of different levels. What say you, my friend, is it time to start giving the Blues some Cup love, or do you still have reservations?

LEBRUN: I spoke with Armstrong on Wednesday morning about his team’s surprising and impressive ride up the Western Conference standings. I mean, I picked the Blues to make the playoffs this season, but not to challenge for the conference title.

"It’s been an interesting ascent because the team is just really focused on the here and now," Armstrong told ESPN.com. "I know that’s a cliché, but being around this group, they really just focus on preparing for the next game. They’ve been able to not look backwards and just look forward to next game and nothing past that. Ken has done a really good job of coming in and giving them a game plan. But the players deserve credit as well for following it and executing it on it. It was a group that was tired of losing and looking for a coach that could deliver a game plan.’’

It's hard to think when NHL broadcasters cast their votes for the Jack Adams Award that Hitchcock wouldn’t win, although there are many deserving candidates again this season.

"I would be extremely biased, but I just think you look at his winning percentage this season; no one else is really that close to him," Armstrong said. "We were a game under .500 when he took over. Torts [John Tortorella], for sure, has done an incredible job in New York and [Paul] MacLean in Ottawa, and the list goes on and on. But what Hitch has done here is second-to-none in the NHL this season, in my opinion."

Then, laughing, Armstrong added: "I might just have to quit my job and become a broadcaster so I can have a vote."

Have a great day, Scotty.