Make no mistake, the Leafs played like trash tonight. Through two periods, the Blues had more than triple the Leafs' shot attempts and a comfortable 4-1 lead (well, that's only a comfortable lead if your team is even moderately competent in their own zone). I'll skip the scoring summary tonight. Your game in six:
I want to talk about some team level stuff first. Yes, I know, we talk about it often here, but there were so many things about tonight's game that seemed like all the regular problems were exacerbated. I'm sure that's a product of playing against a good team, but it seems like a good time to point something out:
These are issues the Leafs have had constantly. Not just since the start of this slump, not just since last time they played the Blues, but since Randy Carlyle took over. It's not about the Leafs lacking "motivation" or "compete," it's not about "willpower" or "focus" or "fear," it's about the Leafs' systems not being effective in the current NHL. Tonight the Leafs had no answer for the Blues' cycle game - or transition, that matter, as the Blues got the customary 3+ breakaways against Toronto.
And the flurry of goals at the end? "Battling back"? It's score effects. The old hockey adage "the two goal lead is the most dangerous lead in hockey" is completely confirmed - teams universally take their foot off the gas when they pick up a lead. The Leafs have some talented shooters who can handle the puck, and so sure enough, they can capitalize on the increase in shot attempts. Suddenly, a high rate of chances against - that drops when the Leafs are behind - suddenly becomes "slow starts." It's not slow starts, it's consistently bad defensive play that routinely gets covered over by score effects and incredible goaltending.
Speaking of goaltending, let's talk about some individuals: Jonathan Bernier made some huge pad saves, including a shorthanded breakaway. He had two similar goals against, where he elects to stand and take the shot high, and I think there's an important distinction: the first goal I"m referring to was a tip, while the other one was a clear shot. The first is an issue of a forward not getting tied up, while the second is a bad save selection. So given some of the incredible acrobatics he had to put up in the first, he had a good game despite the four goals against. Once again, the Leafs can lose when the goaltending is anything short of incredible - simply "average" on this much of a workload cannot keep the team competitive.
I think one of the most notable changes in Carlyle's system over the course of the year has been the freedom for defensemen to jump up into the rush. It seems like lately, they've been much more aggressive, and tonight I think it helped. Jake Gardiner, jumping up in the rush, was taken down with a weird non-call, but it created a strong chance. Morgan Rielly was down low a few times, and managed to lead all Leafs in Corsi events for.
How about that assist by Nazem Kadri on the Joffrey Lupul goal? Great chance on Ryan Miller (what a save), then Kadri bats the puck out of the air across the crease? I love watching these skill players play, and I'll be upset if the Leafs look to move talented young assets for a niche skillset before changing the team's system. Consistent problems are being treated like new surprises, and it's costing the Leafs a playoff spot.