North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Now That The Choke Job’s Over

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Last night, the Toronto Maple Leafs won a hockey game for the first time in a couple of weeks. Even up here, I could hear the collective exhale: maybe this season isn’t a wash after all.

Over the end of March, the Leafs dropped eight games in a row, slowly sliding down the playoff bracket until they dropped off it completely. As far as losing streaks go, it was an interesting one: the Leafs lost close and they lost big but in every loss, they didn’t even pick up a point. Going by that measure, it was their worst streak since the mid-80s, when the team was a perennial doorstop, played in a decaying arena out by College Station and a guy named Harold Ballard owned the team.

Trust me, it’s been fun: when I plowed through a crossword puzzle during the Detroit/Toronto game, I realized I was more interested in a seven-letter word for Tea Time than if Phil Kessel scored a goal. It helped with my reading too: with the game on in the background, I’ve been plowing through Robert Caro’s The Master of the Senate, only occasionally glancing up to look at the score (“Oh, it’s 3-1 Detroit, what did Dion Phaneuf do now?”).

Indeed, it’s Phaneuf I keep thinking about as this streak reaches comic proportions. He’s the Leafs captain and getting a huge payday, but he’s also logging a ton of both minutes and blame. In the post-game interviews, he looks deflated as he talks into a bushel of microphones. What’s he supposed to say: “We lost because we didn’t give it 110 per cent?” On the ice, he looks burned out and overwhelmed, the most visible part of a defence that allows a ton of shots (more on that in a moment). It goes beyond the tangible: just the other night, a puck essentially bounced off his skate, to a Detroit stick and then into the back of the net. When it rains…

Goalie James Reimer’s on my mind a lot, too. Last year he was the best Leaf: I can think of a few games where the team’s defence was a no-show, letting teams pepper him with shots; he absolutely stole a game against New Jersey late last season and another against Ottawa, a game the Leafs normally wouldn’t have won. And in the playoffs, he was the main reason the series even went to seven games; when it ended in a seventh-game meltdown, I felt for the guy: he’d done so much, way more than anyone expected from him and it wasn’t enough. If anything, he took the blame.

Still does, too. I’ve seen people (always on the Leafs’ Facebook page, it seems) blame him for everything, even losses when he sat on the bench: “If Reimer didn’t stink it up, Carlyle wouldn’t have had to rush Bernier back before he was healthy.” It’s completely unfair and incorrect, but then again, who ever turned to a Facebook comment for wisdom?

Okay, let’s talk about their goaltending for a second. This year, Jonathan Bernier’s GAA is 2.72 and his Save Percentage is .922. Those aren’t league-leading numbers: he’s not in the league’s top 20 for GAA and is tenth in Save Percentage. Let’s go a bit deeper: Bernier’s faced 1737 shots this season, third-most in the league. The two goalies above him – Mike Smith and Semyon Varlamov – have made more starts than him. Thus, on a per-game basis, Bernier’s getting peppered with shots, an average of about 33 per game. He’s never faced anything like this before. Somehow, he’s still putting up great numbers, arguably a career best. And this is still not enough for the Leafs, who allow a NHL-worst 38 shots per game.

During the streak, sometimes the best player on the ice was one of their youngest. On Saturday night, for example, it was Morgan Reilly. For my money, the play where he slid on his belly and knocked the puck to Lupul in the second was the play of the night and one of the best Leaf plays I can remember seeing all season. I was talking to my Dad about him the other night and we agreed he’s talented, a lot of fun to watch and we both hope this team doesn’t wreck him. Some players can survive under the pressure Toronto puts on talented young players (Kadri comes to mind, although he came along slowly), but sometimes it messes them up. As my Dad put it, I hope Toronto doesn’t treat him like they did Luke Schenn.

***

If last year was a season when everything went right (at least before the playoffs), this past streak’s been one where it all went wrong. While I suppose the Leafs are still mathematically alive, they’re also playing like a smoldering tire fire. Over at the Globe and Mail, James Mirtle had it best. The Leafs are looking for excuses, especially ones that deflect blame from the GM and coach. Ever since Randy Carlyle took over this team, the Leafs end has resembled a shooting gallery. Not even Terry Sawchuk could pull some of these games out. Unless that changes, I don’t expect to see them too much this spring, especially since the Raptors have already clinched a spot and the Jays are back. It’s not going to change, either.

The cool thing is how insane this streak is, both in it’s depth and timing. The only one I can really think to compare it to is to the Jays collapse in 1987. On September 26, a 10-9 win over Detroit brought their record to 96-59. It was the last game they’d win that season: they lost in 13 innings the next night, then three in a row to Milwaukee. A final three-game series in Detroit could’ve saved the season, but Toronto dropped all three games, each one by a single run.

For a long time, when TSN needed b-roll of a Toronto choke job, they had to run the grainy VHS tapes of that series. Now, in 2014, they’ll have some new, HD-quality b-roll. As least the segment producers of Sportscentre are happy.

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Written by M.

April 2, 2014 at 11:31 am

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