Some of these previews are tough to write .. or, better put, are tough to read up and prepare for, prior to writing. But not this time around... now, there is the opposite problem. There is almost too much: there is no team as thoroughly written about, talked about, blogged about, and scrutinized over as much as the Toronto Maple Leafs.
As recently as March 13, the Leafs beat the LA Kings 3-2 (thanks guys!), but did so at the cost of their starting goaltender Jonathan Bernier , who left the game with a groin injury. Part of the significance of that victory was that it was not just a win, but a come-from-behind victory despite the Kings out-shooting the Leafs 41-29. It's really odd that a team that's behind in goals doesn't pour on the shots for themselves, hoping to throw everything at the net to make up lost ground. It's stranger yet to come back and win the game that way... yet, that's been pretty much the MO for the Leafs. Fall behind, be out shot by the other team (and not just barely, but by staggering proportions) ... but rely on popgun offense and outrageous goaltending to pull off the win. However, that only works when the goalies carry the team. Largely, this is what the Leafs did last year, when James Reimer carried the team all the way to the playoffs. This year, Bernier has been asked to shoulder much of the burden. Now though, with Bernier down, Reimer has been put back into net ... and has struggled.
Since that Kings game, the Leafs have fallen from 2nd in their division (with dreams of home ice dancing in their heads) down to clinging (barely) to the last wild card spot. The Leafs have not won since that Kings game, and Reimer has really taken the blame. In this 5-game losing stretch, Reimer has started all five, allowed 19 goals, and posted an .871 save percentage. Certainly, there's room for improvement there.
The team's core problems pre-exist this situation, though. It comes back down to allowing so many shots on goal. Putting a defense on the ice that is either slow, inexperienced, or cast in the wrong role (or any combination of those 3) is putting your goalie on the spot. He has to be AMAZING to give the team a chance to win.. and you can't rely on that kind of performance in net for 82 games a year. In fact, it's a testament to the quality of both Bernier and Reimer that the Leafs are even this close. And this not a new problem ... this has been going on forever, it seems.
Here are some headlines and quotes from around the web:
Mirtle: Reimer or MacIntyre? Leafs have a tough call to make (Globe And Mail)
1. It’s a game no one expects the Leafs to win, so there’s little pressure. Toronto has lost a season-worst five straight games and six of seven. The remedy is hosting the team we think will win the Stanley Cup this year? Woof. So what’s the worst that can happen? MacIntyre struggles and the Leafs get shelled by a team that shelled them once already this year?
Dry March and Sv% Expectations (Leafs Nation):
A really simple breakdown of why the shots-against matter, considering the Leafs scoring is down, too:
No matter how shaky Reimer has been, no matter what goals "should" or "shouldn't" have been in, the last line of defence needs more support. Whether it's more goals for, or limiting of shots against, one can't underestimate the height of the mountain they expected to climb right now. No goalie should be placed under this much of a challenge with an expectation of success.
Mirtle: Deconstructing the Leafs’ free fall: What went wrong? (Globe and Mail)
While Randy Carlyle and company spent the Olympic hiatus working to correct the team’s defensive issues, the deficiencies of Toronto’s game in that department remain. The Leafs still allow 35 shots a game (down from 36.3 in the first 60 games of the season) and give the opposition far too many odd-man rushes and grade-A scoring chances.
Maple Leafs' losing streak is 'reality' that Leafs need to end quickly (NHL.com)
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.
And to go a little further...
But what makes this particular matchup at this particular moment so intriguing is the way it pits two philosophies and two different team makeups against one another.
The Blues are basically the anti-Leafs....
For those curious about the realm of #FancyStats, take a glimpse at the ExtraSkater page for the Leafs. Sometimes you can best gauge the meaning of a stat by looking at the outliers - the extreme best and worst examples of a given category. Up and down that page, you see some pretty outrageous numbers. Basically, every coach should look at that and use the motto: Don't Be That Team. That the Leafs are even sniffing the playoffs is a testament to the hard work of the two netminders, despite them shouldering a load that they shouldn't have been given in the first place. If the Blues take care of business, as in the Pens game, we should be fine.
Final Verse: We're back to Eastern time, so the opening faceoff is 6:00 PM St Louis time. The TV broadcast is on Fox Sports MW, and the radio call will be on KMOX 1120 AM. The GDT should drop just before the puck does. Until then, reminisce when Reimer was sung about, and also enjoy the split personalities of my favorite Leafs blogger/vlogger, Steve Dangle: