TORONTO — Captain Dion Phaneuf knows the Toronto Maple Leafs can’t go back in time.
If they could, maybe goaltender Jonathan Bernier would’ve rested before his groin injury got worse. Maybe coach Randy Carlyle would’ve chosen to give Drew MacIntyre a start or two instead of James Reimer going back-to-back.
Instead, the Leafs must come to grips with their five-game losing streak as they take another stab at ending it Tuesday night against the formidable St. Louis Blues.
“No one’s happy with what’s gone on, but it’s reality,” Phaneuf said. “We want to get back on track. We’ve slid far enough.”
The Leafs have slid from second place in the Atlantic Division to the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card spot in a matter of days. They’re still in a playoff position, but the Detroit Red Wings, Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets all control their playoff future over Toronto because they play more games. With nine left themselves, the Leafs would be silly to dwell on the negatives of five straight losses but also remiss if they didn’t diagnose what has gone wrong to be able to fix those problems.
One glaring issue is the slow starts that have the Leafs playing from behind. They’ve surrendered the first goal in each of the past five games, playing a total of 240 minutes 15 seconds of 300 while down a goal or more.
“Something that’s been a major factor is that we’ve been coming from behind far too often and chasing the game,” Phaneuf said. “When you get behind, you’re trying to chase it.”
That’s why Carlyle wants his team thinking only about the start of the Blues game and nothing more.
“You can’t focus on all of the other outside distractions or noise or things that go on in the game,” he said. “The one issue for us, more than anything, is that we seem to be putting ourselves in a position of clawing back into games, and you can’t and you won’t have success if you continue to do that.”
Success won’t follow if the Leafs continue to give up four goals a game. No doubt a large part of that should be blamed on team defence, but Reimer has also not been at his best.
Since starting March 16 at the Capitals, Reimer has a 4.22 goals-against average and .870 save percentage. His numbers aren’t much better even if you include his 31-save performance in relief of Bernier three days earlier in Los Angeles (GAA is 3.65, save percentage .894).
Carlyle, who drew criticism for calling Reimer’s play in Detroit on March 18 “just OK,” said Monday that the Leafs win and lose as a team. Support continued in the locker-room for the popular 26-year-old for remaining positive amid struggles.
“Reims, everybody goes through tough times,” centre Dave Bolland said. “I know I’ve gone through tough times and it’s confidence and it’s being behind your player and helping him out. I’ve been through those things and it’s about your team and the guys in the room that help you out for all this. And we’re here for Reims. Everything happens as a team.”
Reimer has been forced to shoulder the burden in goal because Bernier has been out with the first groin injury of his playing career. Bernier skated again Monday, his sixth consecutive day on the ice, but there’s no assurances he’ll be ready to come to any sort of rescue against St. Louis.
“Obviously it hurts to see your team lose, but at the same time it’s one of those injuries you’ve got to take time and don’t want to rush and then you’re out for another four, five games after,” Bernier said.
If Bernier is not deemed healthy enough to play, Reimer would get his sixth straight start or the 30-year-old MacIntyre the first of his NHL career. Carlyle said that decision would be based on “who you feel is going to give you the best opportunity to have success in the game.”
That would undoubtedly be Bernier if he’s ready. Bernier’s .925 save percentage has covered up a lot of his teammates’ mistakes in a season full of them. That hasn’t gone unnoticed, but Phaneuf and the Leafs can’t just sit back and wait for Bernier to return.
“Bernie’s obviously been a huge part of our team and the success that we’ve had,” Phaneuf said. “But whether he’s back or not, we have to play better and we’ve got to play more to our strengths.”
Carlyle said a lot of mistakes have been made as the Leafs got away from the brand of hockey that got them into a playoff position.
Poor line changes hurt Toronto in a 3-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Sunday night, but that was just the continuation of a pattern. Before that it was turnovers, weak clearing attempts and defensive miscues that sparked odd-man rushes.
“There isn’t a guy in there and there isn’t a coach in there that hasn’t made mistakes,” Carlyle said. “So we’re all vulnerable to mistakes, and that’s what the game is made up of. … We’re making too many of them that are costing us in the hockey games.”
As the mistakes have piled up, so have the defeats that could put an abrupt end to a season that started strong. Some of that has to do with bad bounces, like a goal that went in off defenceman Tim Gleason’s stick Saturday night against Montreal, but perhaps a recent run of them should have been expected given the Leafs’ good fortune early on.
“Whether you look at a stick breaking or a penalty call against you, I feel those things even out throughout a year,” Phaneuf said. “The bottom line is we haven’t won. We haven’t won the games that we’ve played.”
That has to change quickly, something easier said than done with the Western Conference-leading Blues in town. St. Louis beat Toronto 6-3 on Dec. 12 but also learned a lesson in that game about what the Leafs can do.
“For 30 minutes we did a great job in managing the puck and we were getting scoring chances because of it, and then for a 15-minute stretch we didn’t manage it very well and they just came at us in waves and waves,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Monday at Air Canada Centre. “We can’t get into that game because they have too many players who are too good off the rush. They’ve got seven or eight forwards who are great off the rush, who make plays.”
There’s little doubt that when the Leafs have been at their best, their offence is opportunistic. That could work to its advantage against a tight-checking Blues team.