WINNIPEG – The silver lining disappeared with a thud as the winless streak hit three.
Misfiring "in all facets of the game" the Leafs dropped their third game in a row for the first time all season, sinking in a 5-2 loss to the Jets.
"Honestly, it might be the first time all year where we can say that was not a good effort all around from any of us," Jay McClement told TSN.ca as the visiting dressing room emptied at MTS Centre. "We didn't really do anything that we set out to do."
Proud of their resiliency and effort in close losses to the Bruins and Penguins, the Leafs could claim little in the way of optimism on Tuesday night as the Jets scored four unanswered goals to snatch the win. "Tonight was by far the most disappointing for sure," McClement said of the three most recent defeats.
The Leafs managed little offence beyond their top unit in the loss, continued to spring leaks defensively and were generally incomplete with their usual physical presence. With a real chance to make things interesting with an extended five-on-three in the middle frame, they came up empty.
"They just beat us everywhere, that's what I think," said Mikhail Grabovski, who rarely saw the ice in the final two periods.
After never dropping more than two consecutive games at any point during the first half of the season, adversity is staring this group in the face and demanding a response when the Penguins visit Toronto on Thursday evening.
"We need to regroup," McClement concluded, "stop the bleeding here."
1. Defensive Issues
Tuesday marked a continuation of the Leafs recent defensive issues. For the sixth time in the past seven games they allowed four goals or more – an alarming trend – with their generally inexperienced blueline under increasing strain. "First of all, we're killing ourselves with turnovers so we don't get a forecheck going," said Carl Gunnarsson, who played 22 minutes, second only to Dion Phaneuf. "They're coming back at us all the time [in transition] and it gets tough to stay out there for too [of a] long shift. That makes it tough to pin guys against the glass and be physical."
"We're doing a lot of circling right now," Randy Carlyle added. "We're not engaging in the hockey game from a physical standpoint and if you watch our defensive zone coverage in some of the situations we want to circle and we're not playing in straight lines right now. That's been the glaring factor from our perspective as a coaching staff. We have things that we'd like to do. The try is there, but the smart or the intelligent try right now wasn't there."
2. Time for change on defence?
Carlyle said he would "ponder everything" as far as changes to the group are concerned and at some point the composition of his top two pairs on defence may require some consideration. Korbinian Holzer and Mike Kostka are logging significant minutes in their first tour of the NHL – alongside Phaneuf and Gunnarsson respectively – and both have struggled in recent days, hardly a surprise given their inexperience and the quality of opposition they've been tasked with facing. John-Michael Liles and Mike Komisarek await their next opportunity patiently in the press box, but if change is deemed necessary it only makes sense to consider Jake Gardiner, who remains with the Marlies. With their success in the first half and a tricky waiver situation – Holzer is the only defender who doesn't require waivers – the Leafs have resisted such a move until now, but as the intensity ratchets up in the race to the postseason, now might just be the time. Gardiner's gifts are unique and unmatched on the Toronto roster and would inject a needed flair of offence from the back-end. His agent, Ben Hankinson added fuel to the fire late Tuesday evening when he posted to Twitter, "#FreeJakeGardiner".
3. Empty on the five-on-three
The five-on-three advantage lasted for one minute and 55 seconds in the middle frame with the Leafs trailing 2-1 at the time. Primed to wrestle control of the hockey game, they mustered just two shots and failed to score. "It just seemed like we hurried everything that we were trying to do on it and then the rest of our game seemed to deteriorate from that point on," Carlyle said. The Jets increased their lead to two just minutes after the Leafs came up empty. Carlyle did call timeout with 35 seconds left in the two-man advantage, urging his group, "Just to settle it down, try not to force things just to make our plays. It seemed like we were looking past the obvious and we got ourselves in too tight and we just had a lack of execution in that area. You've got to score on a 5-on-3." James van Riemsdyk and Cody Franson managed the only shots in the extended power-play, a pair of bombs from Phaneuf were blocked six seconds apart and a third attempt whistled just wide.
4. Grabovski's dwindling ice-time against the Jets
The 29-year-old played one shift in the final 11 minutes of the second period and did not play at all in the final eight minutes of the third. He logged just 12 minutes and 23 seconds total, his lowest total this season. Grabovski has now gone the past seven games without a goal and has just two assists during that span. He had one prime opportunity on Tuesday, but misfired, the Jets racing down right afterward to score their second goal of the game. "If I have chance to score I need to score goals, that's it," he said. Asked if he'd received any message from Carlyle on why his ice-time had been cut – he averages nearly 17 minutes – Grabovski said no. "Nobody give me any message. Only message on the ice, my shifts, that's it."
5. Carlyle pressing for more production from Grabovski and Kulemin
Carlyle declined to offer detail on why Grabovski had seen his ice-time sliced against the Jets, but revealed the necessary insight prior to the game. "We'd like to see the Grabovski-Kulemin line score some more and make more of a contribution in the offensive side," said Carlyle. While noting the fierce defensive responsibilities the duo face as the team's primary checking forwards, Carlyle said, "there is a little bit of leeway there given to them, but on the other hand we'd like to see them provide more offence also." Because they begin most of their shifts in the defensive zone, mostly against opposing top lines, Grabovski and Kulemin tend to see their opportunities for offence diminished. Here's the problem: with no production from the Grabovski line and little to no production expected from the fourth line, Carlyle is forced to rely on two lines – the Kessel and Nazem Kadri units – for offence. When the Kadri line goes silent, as they did on Tuesday, the Leafs are a one-line attack.
One interesting related note: prior to Tuesday, Grabovski and Kulemin had actually combined to produce more points at even-strength (22) than Kessel and Tyler Bozak (21).
Quote of the Night
"Honestly, it might be the first time all year where we can say that was not a good effort all around from any of us. We need to regroup and get back on home-ice on Thursday and stop the bleeding here."
-Jay McClement, on the Leafs performance against Winnipeg.
0: Goals for Mikhail Grabovski in the past seven games.
4-for-14: Grabovski in the faceoff circle against the Jets.
7: Goals for Kessel in the past six games against Winnipeg.
3-for-13: Nazem Kadri in the faceoff circle against the Jets.
15:22: Average even-strength ice-time for Tyler Bozak, second among Leaf forwards.
8: Even-strength points for Tyler Bozak, ninth among Leaf forwards.
13: Even-strength points for Nik Kulemin.
15: Even-strength points for Phil Kessel.
12:23: Season-low for Grabovski.
The Leafs return home Thursday to host the Penguins for the second time in a matter of days with the Jets to follow again on Saturday.