The only way to have properly experienced Toronto Maple Leafs hockey over the past two weeks was to mute the television during games and play Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” on a three-hour loop.
At the conclusion of play on March 10, the Leafs were 35-23-8 and had 78 points, the third most in the Eastern Conference. They were seven points ahead of the ninth-place Detroit Red Wings and eight points ahead of the 10th-place Washington Capitals, laughing in the face of conventional statistical wisdom that a team with such dreadful possession numbers could be this successful.
Whether it’s a comeuppance for season-long ineptitudes or a run-of-the-mill slump, the Maple Leafs have lost five straight and six of seven and find themselves on the brink of missing the playoffs. The Red Wings have closed the gap to move into seventh place and the Capitals are one point back of the eighth-place Maple Leafs with a game in hand.
Finding ground zero on the Leafs’ collapse can be traced back to, well, it can be traced back pretty far depending on how in depth you want to go. It’s like finding patient zero on a worldwide outbreak of the black plague—you can start at the David Clarkson signing, move back to the hiring of Dave Nonis as general manager, move back to the drafting done in the years before Nonis took the helm, move back to the hiring of Brian Burke as general manager, move back to…(10,000 words later)…and the universe started with a big bang.
|Toronto Maple Leafs' past seven games|
|Date||Opponent||Result||Shots for||Shots against|
|3/11||at San Jose||L, 6-2||21||48|
|3/13||at Los Angeles||W, 3-2||29||41|
|3/16||at Washington||L, 4-2||29||33|
|3/18||at Detroit||L, 3-2||33||31|
|3/19||vs. Tampa Bay||L, 5-3||39||30|
|3/22||vs. Montreal||L, 4-3||36||36|
|3/23||at New Jersey||L, 3-2||23||24|
For the purposes of these two weeks, it all starts with the groin injury suffered by Jonathan Bernier, who has been out of the lineup since March 14. The last game Bernier started and finished was a 43-save victory on March 10 against the Anaheim Ducks.
One of the reasons the Leafs had been not just surviving but excelling as the second-worst possession team in the NHL was exceptional goaltending. Among goaltenders with at least 40 starts, Bernier is fourth in the NHL in save percentage (.925) and third in even-strength save percentage (.935), which went a long way toward masking the problems of a team that has been outshot in games by an average of 36-28 this season.
That’s the second-worst shot differential in the league; the only team worse is the Buffalo Sabres.
The only team to allow more than 36 shots per game in a season over the past 20 years was the 1993-94 Los Angeles Kings, who gave up 36.3 shots per game and missed the playoffs by 16 points.
The Leafs handed the starting reins to James Reimer, who hasn’t been able to plug the holes in the leaky defense that has been a broken dam the past two weeks. Reimer hasn't faced fewer than 30 shots in any of his starts and was pulled Sunday night after allowing three goals on 10 shots to the New Jersey Devils.
Reimer’s only win came in relief of Bernier when the latter was injured March 14 against the Los Angeles Kings. He stopped all 31 shots he faced in relief and the Leafs looked as though nothing would change with Bernier sidelined.
Instead, the Leafs have been exposed at the worst possible time. In their past six losses, Reimer has allowed 24 goals on 187 shots, which equates to an .872 save percentage. When a team is outshot as badly as the Leafs, the wins simply fade away.
The prospects for the Leafs correcting the problems that have left them chasing the puck throughout games all season aren’t likely to improve over their final nine contests. That leaves them having to lean on goaltending to save the day, but Bernier isn’t expected to be back for Tuesday’s game against the St. Louis Blues.
Randy Carlyle says Jonathan Bernier is making progress, but there's no guarantee that he'll be available tomorrow.— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) March 24, 2014
There’s no point in discussing the possession numbers of the Leafs compared to the teams remaining on their schedule—they are all better in that regard no matter how you massage the numbers. But four of the games are winnable, as they will come against teams (Calgary, Winnipeg, Florida, Ottawa) that have no hope of making the playoffs.
The Leafs have defied the math all season thanks mostly to Bernier. If he doesn’t come back soon and display the form that should have him among the three Vezina Trophy finalists or if Reimer doesn't get hot, the Leafs could be authoring a collapse that will pair well with blowing a 4-1 lead in Game 7 to the Boston Bruins last season.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.