What a difference a week makes — especially for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Only a few days ago, with a golden California road trip in progress and a nice nesting spot among the playoff rankings, the Maple Leafs were all but ready for a strong bid into the postseason.
Now, with just three weeks before the playoffs, Toronto is in the midst of their biggest challenge to date: losing four games in a row (a tie for their worst losing streak this season) and no definitive timeline in starting goalie Jonathan Bernier‘s return.
During a painful 4-3 loss Saturday night to the Montreal Canadiens, the Leafs’ self-professed “biggest game of the season,” James Reimer‘s performance only made the need for Bernier’s return to net more apparent, as the goalie gave up two goals less than one minute apart early in the first period.
Although retaining the brunt of the beating, Reimer is not a terrible goalie. He did, after all, lead Toronto to the playoffs last year. But in an unfortunate twist of fate, it only seems he might be the man who keeps the Maple Leafs out of the playoffs this year.
With only a few games left to play before the regular season comes to a close, huge changes in Toronto’s game are no longer a realistic solution. After almost an entire season of finding success playing alongside Bernier’s style of net minding, the Maple Leaf’s game is simply no longer compatible with Reimer’s.
Does this mean Reimer is a bad goalie? No. Does this mean Reimer should probably follow through with his trade request at the end of the season? Most likely, yes. But until then, Toronto has a post-season to achieve and they might have to do so entirely with Reimer in net.
What happens between Sunday’s game against the New Jersey Devils and the last day of the season is crucial for the Maple Leafs; the term “simple hockey” comes to mind in regards to how this team might find much-needed success.
In Saturday’s tilt against Montreal, Toronto tried to do more than they were capable of. Without the guarantee of Reimer stopping easy shots, the Leafs need to scale back to what they know they can accomplish.
Captain Dion Phaneuf and his blue line need to solidify their defensive game and clear pucks out of the zone in better time; the failure to do so cost them greatly against the Canadiens.
Toronto’s top line centered by Phil Kessel can’t put on the brakes anytime soon, but the ability to find secondary scoring from other lines may be the difference-maker for getting the Maple Leafs into the postseason. And if Toronto achieves that feat, depth will also become the difference-maker in keeping the team alive in a run for the Cup.
And then there is the special teams.
Special teams is an aspect to the game most in the league, minus the Pittsburgh Penguins, are currently having a difficult time mastering. Had Toronto been capable of capitalizing on the power play or successfully killing penalties against Montreal, the outcome of the night would have been different; the game-winning goal for the Canadiens was scored right as a Maple Leafs penalty kill expired.
And yet the silver lining for this struggling Toronto team is that if a week is what has made all the difference for the worse, another week of playing the right kind of hockey can surely make all the difference in bringing them right back.