Toronto Maple Leafs: What Needs to Be Done to Get Back on Track for the Playoffs

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Toronto Maple Leafs: What Needs to Be Done to Get Back on Track for the Playoffs
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It was just about a week ago that the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated their archrivals, the Montreal Canadiens, by a score of 5-1 in front of a raucous Air Canada Centre crowd.

At that point, the Leafs improved to 23-13-5 and were all but assured of a playoff position for the first time in nearly a decade.

Heck, with the Ottawa Senators (another bitter rival of Toronto's) just having come off a five-game losing skid, the Leafs were also comfortably holding down the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference and eyeing a potential run for home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Yes, all was good in Leafs Nation.

Now, fast forward a week.

Toronto has lost two consecutive games, but has been badly outplayed in its last three games (the Leafs, led by James Reimer, robbed the New Jersey Devils of a win in their April 15 matchup).

Over the course of those three contests, the Leafs were out-shot 107-64. They were also outscored 10-6 (keep in mind, however, that one of the Leafs' goals was scored into an empty net).

So what happened?

Where did things go wrong for a Toronto team that seemed to have a winning system in place?

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The loss of Carl Gunnarsson these past three games may have been more important than most people think.

Well, for starters, there's the loss of Carl Gunnarsson, who has been out for the last three games (interesting coincidence). In fact, fellow Maple Leafs featured columnist Brad LeClair documented in a recent article just how different the Leafs defense is without the Swedish blueliner.

The team's recent slide, though, clearly is more than just one injury on the back end.

The entire team's defensive core has been shaky in its own end, and we're not just talking about giving the puck away (which this team does do a lot of).

When one of the Leafs' defenders has the puck in the team's defensive zone, he almost seems panicked, and there doesn't seem to be any composure, organization or communication.

This has forced defensemen into either turning the puck over or just frantically dumping the puck out to center ice, allowing opponents to gather the puck and once again push back into the Leafs zone, keeping the team hemmed in and unable to generate any offense of its own.

Icing the puck and simply dumping it out of the zone is no way to win hockey games. It screams of desperation and panic.

Toronto's defensemen must get back to being able to clear the zone without just giving the puck back to the opposition. Crisp and accurate first passes to forwards would do wonders. Guys like Cody Franson and Dion Phaneuf need to get back on track in that regard.

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Toronto needs its puck-moving defensemen to be better at clearing the zone effectively.

With Jake Gardiner and John-Michael Liles, the option of skating the puck out of the zone themselves is also available, and those two should be looking at both first passes or just skating the puck out themselves.

The other major flaw that needs to be addressed on defense is the team's failure to lock down the center of the ice.

A big part of Toronto's success this season has come from the team's ability to push teams to the sides of the rink and force them to take a high volume of low-quality shots. Recently, however, the team hasn't been successful at keeping opponents out of the center of the ice (which is puzzling, considering that this is one of the biggest defensive groups in the league).

Again, this comes down to communication and awareness.

Thursday night's tilt with the New York Islanders is a perfect example of how the team's defense has let up in that regard.

Take the Islanders' first goal for example (fast forward to the 3:00 mark):

Here we see the puck carom off the end boards behind James Reimer and come right to Lubomir Visnovsky.

The problem is that Jake Gardiner, in his pursuit for the puck, comes way too far up the ice, leaving the center of the ice open and Dion Phaneuf outmanned down low, allowing brad Boyes to rifle home the Isles' first goal of the night.

On the second goal (at 3:30 of the video), which happened to be a power-play strike, we can see the entire four-man box collapse down low, giving Matt Moulson a lot of open ice to work with for his shot, while at the same time creating traffic in front of the net, allowing the Islanders to tip home their second tally of the night. A very uncharacteristic mistake by the Leafs penalty kill.

The same held true on the fourth Islanders mark (4:30 of the video), with John Tavares being allowed to receive a pass right in the slot and the fifth goal of the night, when Frans Nielsen was allowed to walk in and bury one from the high slot.

These are all goals that the Leafs must stop from happening.

Can Toronto turn things around in time to be considered a team that can win a series or two in the postseason?

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Shutting down the middle of the ice is imperative.

In fairness to the defensemen, some of this responsibility also lies with the forwards. Effective backchecking and eliminating the third and fourth attackers from the rush are on the forwards.

The forwards also need to move around more in their own end and give the defenders options to clear the zone, other than just dumping it to center ice or icing it.

On the attack, Toronto has to get back to the aggressive forechecking that had been working so well.

One of the noticeable parts of Toronto's game that has been missing up front has been its ability to cycle the puck and create chances.

A lot of this stems from the fact that the team hasn't been able to successfully forecheck and control the puck in its past few games.

Over the course of the last week, Toronto's game has taken a hit at both ends of the ice. And if the team is going to get the train back on the rails, Saturday night's head-to-head contest with the suddenly red-hot, archrival Ottawa Senators would be a great place to start. Ottawa has won four straight games and is only one point behind the Buds for fifth place in the East.

Thankfully, the solutions to Toronto's problems aren't anything too drastic. Being able to re-gain its composure and avoid panicking under pressure will go a long way to helping it get back to its winning ways in time for its first postseason appearance in the salary cap era.

 

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