TORONTO – Incomplete hockey continues to burn the Leafs.
"We just seem to hit a spot in the game where we just don't do anything right," Randy Carlyle said late Saturday evening, still trying to piece together the rollercoaster he had just witnessed.
While they scratched back for an admirable point in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Jets at the Air Canada Centre, the Leafs winless skid extended to five amid an ongoing search for answers.
Winnipeg scored four unanswered during a disastrous 15-minute slide in the middle frame, the Leafs racing back with three straight of their own to knot the score before falling in a lengthy shootout. However admirable their rallying efforts were, they do not erase the pockets of incomplete hockey which have lingered through a season-long skid.
"Those stretches right now where we're not playing good are kind of killing us in games," Carl Gunnarsson told TSN.ca afterward.
He and the Leafs started well.
Joffrey Lupul scored in his first shift back from injury for a quick 1-0 lead, but in the early stages of the second frame, signs of a storm begin to emerge. There were lost races and battles for the puck, an aversion to physical play, turnovers, a breezy neutral zone and little to no offensive pressure. They colluded in the Leafs yielding control of the lead and any previous momentum.
"You can almost feel it coming sometimes," Cody Franson explained to TSN.ca of the puzzling stretches of inefficiency. "We get sloppy for a shift. It's like it's just kind of contagious. The bench can feel it. We make a couple mental mistakes … and it snowballs on us for a minute. And then, we regroup and try and get back to what we were doing before."
A rare goal from Nik Kulemin triggered the comeback late in that middle frame, a follow-up from Lupul 25 seconds later igniting a previously dormant home crowd. After James Reimer had replaced Ben Scrivens to start the third, Phil Kessel went on to erase the deficit completely.
"The positives are we did a good job sticking with it," Franson said.
Of the five losses in this current Leafs skid, four have really been one-goal battles – a loss to Winnipeg earlier this week the lone exception. In many cases, they've been stung by odd dips in performance, a third period meltdown against the Penguins on Thursday another such example.
Suitably pleased to snatch at least a point from a playoff rival – both clubs now have 32 points, the Jets sitting third in the East, the Leafs in sixth – Carlyle was still distressed by the mystifying lapses his team seems to endure.
"It's a mindset that's got to change in our group," said Carlyle, who considered a goalie change or timeout, neither of which he opted to employ. "You're not going to have success and you're not going to be able to even get points if you're going to have speed bumps like those within the game.
"I think we just have to take responsibility for it, look ourselves in the mirror and say 'Hey this can't be happening to this hockey club'. You can see one hand how poorly we played and then on the other hand when we played the third period we were skating, we were forechecking, we were playing our game. And it's mystifying to everybody. I'm sure they don't want to play like that, but it seems to grasp our group."
1. Lupul's return
Back from a 25-game layoff, Lupul returned with a bang. The 29-year-old scored on his first shift of the game, taking a nifty feed from Nazem Kadri before firing a backhand past Ondrej Pavelec. "That was pretty much the dream first shift back," he said afterward. Lupul would go on to add his second of the game (and season) late in the middle frame after a Colton Orr forced turnover spurred another creative dish from Kadri. "He stands out," said Carlyle, noting Lupul's skating and obvious skill. "He separates himself from people." In what was his first action since January 23rd – he was sidelined with a fractured right forearm – Lupul played a touch under 17 minutes. "I felt great," he noted. "My legs were good, I felt good with the puck, arm felt strong, no complaints."
2. The shootout
Lasting 10 rounds, the shootout and defeat ended when Zach Bogosian fired a puck off the right post, tucked in behind the left pad of Reimer. Tyler Bozak proved the sole Toronto shooter to beat Pavelec in the skills duel, three Leafs – Kadri, Matt Frattin and James van Riemsdyk – managing to hit the post. "That's just the way it's going right now," Carlyle sighed.
For his initial three, Carlyle selected Kadri, Bozak, and Lupul before adding Kessel, Frattin, van Riemsdyk, Cody Franson, Clarke MacArthur, Dion Phaneuf and Nik Kulemin. Maybe most surprising was the absence of Mikhail Grabovski, who has scored in three of his 12 career attempts. "You try to go with your best people from a pure skill standpoint," Carlyle said. "You're always criticized because you didn't pick the right guy when you lose it."
Reimer meanwhile, dropped to 3-6 in shootouts with a .677 save percentage (10 goals on 31 shots).
3. Strategy behind Lupul & Kessel split
Aside from a handful of games after his initial arrival to Toronto, Lupul has been a constant alongside Kessel with the Leafs. But upon his return from a 25-game absence on Saturday evening, Lupul and Kessel were kept apart, the former paired with Kadri and Frattin. The need for balance and the emergence of van Riemsdyk helped explain Carlyle's approach. "You go back to the summer when you're putting your potential lines together," he explained, "I'm sure we didn't, I didn't anyways, bank on James van Riemsdyk playing up there, but we were forced to do it through injury and he leads our team in goals."
"With the addition and the emergence of Kadri," he continued, "it allows Lupul to go in and play with Kadri and then you have another 1-A and 1-B type of scenario. And if we can continue to get [Mikhail] Grabovski to play the way he played the other night [versus Pittsburgh], then there's another element of offence that he can provide. We know that. So that gives us, in our minds, more of a balanced attack of the nine forwards that we're going to play in those situations."
4. Reuniting Gunnarsson-Phaneuf
The most prominent top pairing for the Leafs last season, Carlyle finally reconnected the duo of Phaneuf and Gunnarsson against the Jets, the first time he has joined the pair together this season. "We thought we would put the two defencemen that had played together historically against the best lines," said Carlyle, citing the Jets reliance on the top line of Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little and Andrew Ladd. "We thought that [John-Michael] Liles and [Korbinian] Holzer would be a combination that we could go with because we were adamant that we weren't going to break up [Mark] Fraser and Franson."
By shifting Gunnarsson onto the top pairing, Carlyle was able to remove Holzer, who has struggled, from the most pressure-packed of positions. And while the 25-year-old had his difficulties in 15-plus minutes on Saturday, he is more likely to find success moving forward in a role that doesn't force him to contend nightly with the likes of Crosby, Staal and Stamkos.
Carlyle relied heavily on the aforementioned top pair, both Gunnarsson and Phaneuf logging in and around the 28-minutes.
5. Wiser for experience
While he had a tough time opposite the Jets – pulled after two periods after yielding four goals on 27 shots – Ben Scrivens had been making steady improvement for the Leafs in goal this season – now with a 2.63 goals against average and .915 save percentage – a fact he ties to experience. "It's playing in Boston, it's playing in Philly, playing against Pitt, playing against Washington, some superstars of the league," he told TSN.ca before the game. "You never know how you're going to stack up until you're in the deep-end and you're thrashing about trying to keep your head above water. Once you calm down, you can just tread water for a bit and you feel a little more comfortable where you're at."
"Marty Brodeur doesn't look amazing because he's reading everything for the first time," Scrivens continued, "it's because he's seen, I'd say, thousands of 2-on-1's and he's picked up little idiosyncrasies players have, little tells they have, and he can make that determination off his past experiences about when to go over, when to play strong shot and so on and so forth."
Quote of the Night
"It's alright to come to the game and cheer."
-Joffrey Lupul, on motioning to the crowd for action following his second goal.
Quote of the Night II
"We hit three posts in a shootout. That's just the way it's going right now."
-Randy Carlyle, following the shootout defeat.
Quote of the Night III
"Those stretches right now where we're not playing good are kind of killing us in games."
-Carl Gunnarsson, on the incomplete pockets of hockey.
4-games: Point streak for Phil Kessel, who has amassed four goals and three assists in that span.
27: Points for Kessel and Kadri this season, tied for the team-lead in scoring.
3: Goals for Nik Kulemin this season.
62%: Collective faceoff percentage against the Jets, led by Mikhail Grabovski, who finished 10-15.
2-8-2: Leafs record when trailing after two periods.
6-6-2: Leafs record at home.
0-3-2: Leafs record in the past five games.
27:45: Carl Gunnarsson, a season-high.
The Leafs have a rare three days off before facing the Lightning at home on Wednesday.