RALEIGH, N.C. – With one of their "least inspiring performances" so far this season, the Leafs fell flat on Thursday night, dropping a 3-1 defeat to the Hurricanes at PNC Arena, thus ending the feel-good vibes of a four-game win streak.
"I don't think we can say that anybody that performed tonight performed to the level they're capable of," said Randy Carlyle after his team's second loss to Carolina this season. "We didn't play a game that we're capable of playing. There's really no other way to sugarcoat [it]; the game wasn't played at a very high level from our perspective. And it was very frustrating in a lot of areas and I'm sure [the players] were [frustrated] too."
Generally lacking a spark or much bite to their game, the Leafs were outmanned and outworked by the emerging Southeast Division leaders – winners in five of seven – rarely demonstrating the tenacity which allowed them to snatch wins in six of their first seven games on the road.
"It's easy to let off once you go on a little streak and you're having some success," said Nazem Kadri, who scored the Leafs lone goal. "That's where a young team like us has to hit the reset button and get back to work. We just got outworked today. It wasn't a typical Maple Leaf road hockey game."
They didn't skate and thus lacked speed, weren't physical, rarely sustained a forecheck and were sloppy with the puck in all three zones. Another night against the Staal brothers again exposed the Leafs' lack of size down the middle with Mikhail Grabovski and Co. often overmatched.
"It doesn't matter how many games you win in a row, the bottom line is you're judged with the game that you're playing in the present and we didn't play well enough to win tonight," Dion Phaneuf said, notching an assist on the Kadri goal. "If you look at it, we did a lot of things ourselves that cost us."
The Hurricanes scored three times in the middle frame to pull in front for good – including a go-ahead powerplay goal from Jussi Jokinen – the visitors managing just 23 shots at Dan Ellis, including five meekly in the final 20 minutes.
Even as his team racked up a string of wins, including one-sided affairs against the Canadiens and Flyers in recent days, Carlyle aimed to keep the emotion of his group level.
"We're a hockey club that has to come to work every day, recognize our deficiencies and then try and work on those and then continue to work on the strengths of our group," he said after practice on Wednesday. "I don't think we should be waving any pompoms or doing any jumping up and down."
Thursday's performance – absent James Reimer and Matt Frattin for the first time since both went down with knee injuries – offered a simple reminder of that.
"I think there's always a reminder that, as we've stated with our group, at times we look like we know what we're doing and some other times, and tonight was one of those other times, we didn't look good and we didn't play good," Carlyle concluded. "Simple as that."
1. Scrivens first opportunity (with Reimer out)
Reimer's absence for at least the next week – more is likely – has opened a partial door of opportunity for Ben Scrivens, who made his fifth start of the season against Carolina. The 26-year-old was solid with 30 saves, but couldn't quite steal his team a game they did not deserve to win. "He mirrored what the rest of our group was about," Carlyle said. The Leafs had multiple opportunities to clear the zone on the Hurricanes' first goal from Joe Corvo, saw Korbinian Holzer accidently plow into Scrivens on the second marker from Jokinen and were outnumbered in transition on the dagger from Jordan Staal. "I worked hard, I thought I made some big saves, just got to try and give the guys a chance," Scrivens said afterward.
2. Assessing Grabovski's role and requirements
There is a fine line to walk when it comes to assessing the performance of Mikhail Grabovski this season. Grabovski ended an eight-game point drought with a secondary assist on the Kadri goal, but remains without a goal since the fifth game of the year. The difficulty in assessing the 29-year-old's performance strictly on the basis of point production is that it ignores the role he's cast to play on this Leafs team. Carlyle relies heavily on Grabovski – and Nik Kulemin – to line up against the opposing team's top lines and thus expects stopping the likes of Eric Staal and Alexander Semin to be his sole priority. Without a second unit to ease those duties – Jay McClement could help, but has either played with Grabovski or the fourth line typically – the task inevitably falls to that one shutdown unit. "I do what coach wants me to do," Grabovski said after Thursday's loss. "I want to give this team the best that I can. If they think I can play better against the best lines I can play [there]." It's obvious that the Leafs need his offensive weaponry, but with all the exertion he is tasked with defensively, it's not surprising that the offence has dried up.
3. Grit in MacArthur's game
With Frattin on injured reserve and sidelined at least the next week, likely more, and Joffrey Lupul still out, the Leafs could use an injection of offence from Clarke MacArthur, who has just two goals and three points this season. "We've had numerous discussions," Carlyle said before Thursday's game, "[and told him] that the grittiness and the determination in his game has gone up and we're looking for more of that. We're not asking him to be a big power forward, we're asking him to be a tenacious forward that demonstrates tenacity in everything that he does out there." MacArthur spent time in Germany during the lockout, playing in nine games with Crimmitschau ETC. Requiring regular trips to the blue paint to be effective, the 27-year-old believes the bigger ice surface in Europe may have caused him to stray to the outside upon his return to North America. "Just room and space, the time you had," he told TSN.ca of the difference between the two games. "It was just a change. I've seen a few guys that went over [to Europe] who were struggling a little bit early, just to get their rhythm. I want to get going here now and stay in those areas." While he began the night alongside Kadri and McClement, MacArthur concluded the evening with long-time linemates, Grabovski and Kulemin.
4. Cycle Game
The Leafs no longer rely on a high-flying transition game to generate all of their offence, but instead look to initiate an aggressive forecheck and cycle game down low in the offensive zone. "I guess there's a lot of things that go into it," Jay McClement explained before the game of the requirements for a strong cycle attack. "Obviously you have to have the patience to hang on to the puck. I think talk helps a lot too, communication, especially from the guys without the puck to let the guy [with the puck] know what he's got; who's coming, where everyone else is. We've been working a lot on getting closer support, not getting too spread out in the offensive zone. You get too spread out [and] then you leave the puck carrier on an island a little bit. It's something we've really strived to do is get close support and outnumber them on battles." McClement noted the consistency issue prior to the game. "We definitely do it well at times," he said. "When we get away from it, we get in trouble. Part of that starts with turning the puck over, not having good dumps and getting in on the forecheck. We've proven we can do it, we just have to do it more consistently I think." Because they failed to manage much of a forecheck against the Hurricanes ailing blueline – they were without top defencemen Joni Pitkanen and Tim Gleason – the Leafs were unable to grind much down low in the Carolina zone and thus managed little offensively.
5. Fraser's adjustment
One very significant factor in Mark Fraser's seemingly smooth adjustment to the Leafs: long-time New Jersey head coach Jacques Lemaire. Fraser played in 98 games with the Devils, mostly under the leadership of Lemaire. "I learned a lot of these tools from the Devils system," he said. "The system that we played is now actually the system that we play here in Toronto." One fundamental he described as critical. "In your zone, especially for a big defensive defenceman who's not generally going to be mobile with the puck, is learning that calmness and composure to make a smart play," the 26-year-old explained to TSN.ca, "essentially not to panic with it, not to throw it away." Fraser repeated oft-heard kudos to Marlies coach Dallas Eakins, for rebuilding his confidence during a 50-game stint in the American League. "To be honest, what I've been able to do to this point is what I was expecting and hoping to do and that's just play sound defence," he said. "Try to play that physical role and bring that presence to the team." Fraser logged 15-plus minutes on Thursday night.
Quote of the Night
"It's easy to let off once you go on a little streak and you're having some success. That's where a young team like us has to hit the reset button and get back to work. We just got outworked today. It wasn't a typical Maple Leaf road hockey game."
- Nazem Kadri, on the four-game win streak snapped with the loss to Carolina.
Quote of the Night II
"It was one of our, probably, least inspiring performances that we've had in a while."
- Randy Carlyle, on the loss.
6-2-0 – Toronto's road record, still tied atop the Eastern Conference with Pittsburgh.
23:59 – Season-low for Phaneuf, who has been overworked often this season.
The Leafs return home to face the Erik Karlsson-less Ottawa Senators before hitting the road for a pair in Florida.