This is not good.
Tonight's 3-2 Maple Leafs loss to the Ottawa Senators was a lot of things, nothing good of course, but it was above all a clear sign to both fanbases that there respective teams are no more than bubble teams in the Eastern Conference. The game started out pretty evenly. Which is to say that both teams were equally terrible. The game was mostly played in the neutral zone and shots were few and far between. A period of pressure to end the period aided by a bad penalty by Mikhail Grabovski with six minutes left. The pressure culminated in a penalty shot for Mike Fisher which he converted to give the Senators a 1-0 lead into the interval. Toronto, despite not playing very well, were still very much in the game. Until the mental errors began to pile up.
One of the things that a team cannot do when you are struggling is make stupid mistakes. Luca Caputi's penalty was dumb. As a guy that started the year in the AHL and has yet to make a tangible impact he should know better. As is often the case with dumb penalties, this one ended prematurely as the Senators scored. As I noted after Colton Orr's goal against Florida, bad and borderline calls have a way of evening out. That's not to say that they do justly but in an absolute sense they do. Similar slashes to the one called on Grabovski were let go, a trip on Beauchemin prior to Orr's dumb penalty was missed, and Mike Fisher interfering with Jean-Sebastien Giguere's right leg was not seen by any refs. These kinds of referee mistakes happen and we can expect them to continue as the NHL is dealing with an inexperienced crop of officials.
Actually, speaking of Colton Orr, his roughing penalty was incredibly stupid. As an enforcer, he brings very little to the team other than muscle. Orr's done that very well and I do believe that opponents take fewer liberties with the Leafs. Then again, that could be the neanderthal in me talking. Maybe it's just that the Leafs don't have guys like Matt Stajan riding the trolley tracks as much. Either way, if he's not scoring points then he cannot be taking dumb penalties 200 feet from the Leafs' net. Again, before his penalty was up the Senators had punished his transgression with a goal. Whereas the first went Erik Karlsson to Sergei Gonchar the roles were reversed with the underfire Karlsson potting his third of the year.
Those couple of moments of stupidity torpedoed a comparitively good outing by the Leafs. As bad as both teams were the Leafs were the better team but as things go, sometimes close calls go the other way and, as we are learning, sometimes it takes longer for the percentages to even out for the shooters. When Brian Burke noted that the Leafs' hot start was great because it allowed the team to bank points towards down periods I don't think he expected to be making withdrawals so soon after. The patience level in Leafland, after the last five years, is razor thin. The schedule does not get any easier for the Buds either. Brace yourselves.
Some more observations:
- Francois Beauchemin was a beast. In addition to the goal, he played 27 tough minutes, killed it in Corsi, and I don't remember him having one of his regular deer in headlights moments.
- Mikhail Grabovski needs that first goal. Another good night in Corsi and 53% in the face-off circle but no goals. I think that he needs one to go in to get rolling. Right now he's getting stuck by equal parts bad luck (crossbar!) and bad decisions (gotta shoot on Elliott).
- Kris Versteeg, Nikolai Kulemin, and Tyler Bozak need to get on track too. They are torpedoing the team's incredible defensive improvement.
- Versteeg could take a page out of Kulemin's book and focus on doing the little things right and letting the big ones (eventually?) take care of themselves. The shift where Beauchemin scored was a tour de force for Kulemin. Stripped Fisher of the puck, drove the net, recovered from an Alfie tackle, helped win the puck behind the net, and then screen Brian Elliott.
- The Leafs had a big advantage of offensive zone face-offs. That's about what we would expect considering how the Senators tried to go into a defensive shell.
- The Leafs had 19 missed shots and 18 blocked shots.