TORONTO – Randy Carlyle was offered a simple and probably obvious question on Monday morning.
“[Has] the play at home been concerning at all?” the questioner asked.
Carlyle chuckled. “No sh-,” he muttered, stopping himself mid-word and perhaps mid-sarcasm.
For the fourth time in five games this season, the Leafs fell flat at the Air Canada Centre, dropping a 4-1 loss to the Hurricanes on Monday night. “I'm not quite sure what the reason is,” said James Reimer of the Leafs' home-ice record after a 35-save performance. “I don't know if anybody does have the reason.”
What started well gradually dissipated into yet another disappointing result for the home side. An emphatic opening frame capped with speed, a physical forecheck and a 1-0 lead was replaced in the final 40 minutes by sloppy puck play (“the most disturbing thing” – according to Carlyle), a misfiring powerplay (0-5), and retreating defensive performance. “It seems like we can play for stretches of [the game] in this building,” Carlyle said following the loss. “It just seems that when it starts to go the other way on us we don't seem to be able to pick ourselves back up and say ‘Hey! Stop it!”
Carolina stormed in front during a dominant middle frame – they outshot Toronto 20-5 – scoring twice on a goal apiece from the Staal brothers, first Jordan and then Eric nine minutes later. Tyler Bozak appeared to knot the score at two, but the potential game-tying goal was overturned, called back on account of the 26-year-old kicking the puck in behind Cam Ward.
An enduring trouble for recent Leaf teams, home ice has offered little advantage. En route to self-destruction in the second half last season, the Leafs lost 11 of their final 13 in Toronto, concluding the year with the third-worst home record in the East.
A one-goal victory over Washington last week proved the lone winning result so far this year, visitors outscoring the Leafs 16-9 at the ACC. Carlyle made home-ice improvement a priority even before the year began, stressing the directive to his group during training camp.
“It's imperative that we have a strong home record to qualify for the playoffs,” he said before the game. “It's as simple as that.”
1. PowerPlay Failings
The Leafs struggles on the man advantage continued in the loss. With an empty showing in five chances – 13 shots – against the Hurricanes, the Toronto powerplay has scored just twice on the last 27 opportunities (six games). “It's awful,” said Bozak. “We're getting a lot of powerplays, we're creating a lot of opportunities and we're just not finishing it off.”
Despite some early stumbles, Carlyle has resisted change to the make-up of his primary unit, sticking with Bozak, Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Mike Kostka and Dion Phaneuf. “The one thing coaches are famous for is that dry-erase board,” Carlyle said Sunday. “There's a lot of writing [that] goes on it and a lot of erasing that goes on it and a lot of movement on the dry-erase. But again, it's something that we consider inside.” Offering insight into his thinking, Carlyle wondered aloud on the proper timeframe for making said changes. “I think that the best way to describe it is we're a work in progress with it.”
2. Kessel Drought Continues
Monday night marked more of the same bad luck for Phil Kessel with a couple examples to demonstrate the point. A prospective chance for the 25-year-old early in the opening frame was broken up at the precise right moment by Alexander Semin. Then with Semin whistled off for hooking in the middle period, Kessel took a clever feed from Bozak and buried it into the right pad of Ward. For the night, the Wisconsin native took four shots, and missed the net on another five. He remains scoreless after nine games and 40 shots on goal, the longest drought to begin a season of his career.
3. Significance of Gunnarsson Injury
Fortunately for the Leafs, it does not appear that Carl Gunnarsson will be out a significant period of time. “It's been something that's been bothering him for a while,” Carlyle said of a hip injury to the Swedish defenceman. “But it's something that we feel will settle down. Other than medication and a little bit of rest and treatment, [he] should be back with us shortly.” Gunnarsson suffered the injury during his lockout stint in Sweden, never quite at full health to begin the year. Losing the 26-year-old for an extended period would have proved a major challenge for the Leafs defence, already a patchwork group to begin with. Gunnarsson is arguably the team's most effective defender, a quiet presence offering stability at a nightly clip of 21 minutes. Perhaps the greatest challenge for Carlyle with the current roster has been finding a suitable partner for Gunnarsson and thus a reliable second pairing. As such, he's been pressed at times into overworking the top pair of Dion Phaneuf and Mike Kostka.
4. Praise for McClement
Perhaps no player on the Leafs roster better embodies what Carlyle is searching for in terms of overall competitiveness than Jay McClement. “If there was a player that we would like our players to replicate, it would be the work ethic of Jay McClement,” Carlyle said of team's top penalty killer on Monday morning. “It would be easy to say if everybody could commit to that level of work we'd have a lot happier coaching staff I would say.” A favourite of the coach from his years combating McClement in the Western Conference, Carlyle has been pleased with the impact the 29-year-old has made, of late in an increased role with Mikhail Grabovski and Nik Kulemin. “He's went out there and been a nice addition,” Carlyle said, noting the speed of the Kingston, Ontario native, “almost seamless and has given that line another dimension.” Clarke MacArthur returned to the lineup on Monday, replacing McClement on that second unit, but Carlyle noted before the game that “We're going to ask if we put MacArthur there [to] take a page out of McClement's book”.
5. Reimer's gradual improvement
Two days after perhaps his strongest start of the season against the Bruins, Reimer looked to be fighting the puck early and often against the Hurricanes. To his credit, the 25-year-old battled his way to 35 saves, including 18 in the middle frame. He explained the most prominent aspect of his improvement this season, dating back to his start against the Penguins last month. “Probably just reading the play,” he said of the biggest difference between now and then. “That's one thing you just can't replicate in practice, just those bang-bang plays, those quick reads on the ice … You always want to be ahead of the play and anticipate and see what options the shooter has, whether it's a guy back-door, a guy high or if he's more inclined to shoot, stuff like that. Timing is a part of it, but also just kind of seeing the play before it happens.”
Quote of the Night
“I'm not quite sure what the reason is.”
-Reimer on the Leafs struggles at home.
1 point – One interesting note is the lack of production from Phaneuf on the man advantage thus far. A year ago, the Leaf captain ranked second on the team with 22 powerplay points, but through the first nine games he has just one, despite ranking first on the team in ice-time. Making room for Kostka on the right point of the powerplay, Phaneuf shifted to the left side and proved less of a weapon.
9:33 – Jay McClement, his second lowest total of the season, following three straight games of 17 minutes-plus. With MacArthur back on the second line, McClement was returned to fourth line centre duty.
The Leafs are right back at it on Tuesday, squaring off with the Capitals in D.C. for the second time in less than a week.