With a chance to prove what this team was truly made of, the Toronto Maple Leafs fell flat on their faces with an embarrassing loss at home to the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night.
Missing captain Mats Sundin, out with an injured groin, it was time for the rest of the team to prove they could still succeed. Instead of coming out with inspired play that would show the hockey world that they still belonged in the playoff hunt, the Leafs looked sloppy and lifeless.
Their defensive zone play was poor, to put it lightly. Blown assignments and missed coverages popped up everywhere, the passing was not crisp, and the power play was ineffective. After the seven-game treat in which the Leafs' power play connected frequently, fans were once again forced to watch as the team struggled to penetrate the zone. Frankly, they looked like a bad junior team.
By the end of the game, it was difficult to watch. How could a team with so much on the line, in the most important game of the season, display such little desire to steal two points?
The Leaf team that showed up at the Air Canada Centre last night resembled the squad that went through the motions during extended losing streaks in December and January.
It has been widely recorded that the Leafs need what is being termed a "change of culture." Many would argue that coach Paul Maurice has not been getting the most out of his players, and others believe it is the effects of incompetent former-GM John Ferguson Jr. The bottom line remains that the Leafs need a shock to the system.
The new GM will be given full control of the team without the restrictions that apparently hampered JFJ. This will be the best thing that can happen to the team, who need to clear some of the trash that currently infects the roster.
The Leafs will come back younger next year. This is not a guarantee that they will make the playoffs, or even contend for them. It is just simply a matter of putting a group of players together who truly want to win all year long—not just in March when a dramatic and miraculous push is needed.
Until then, the younger players need to be given more ice time. Jeremy Williams, Jiri Tlusty and Anton Stralman, for starters, should all see their minutes increase. Even though the Leafs are not eliminated mathematically, they are for all intents and purposes done, and they should not continue to co-opt their fans into believing so.
Andrew Raycroft should also be given a few starts down the stretch, firstly so he can regain some confidence and game shape going into next year, and secondly so as not to injure Vesa Toskala for the coming season.
While "tanking" a season is never something a team wants to do, there is no reason why the Leafs can't begin experimenting with new parts, and auditioning for who will stay and who will go.
The drive for Stamkos isn't dead yet.