Fear grips Toronto: Maple Leafs lose sixth straight game, fall out of playoff position

TORONTO — To all the Toronto Maple Leafs’ faults, add this: fear. They’re blowing it, they know they’re blowing it and they don’t know what to do about it. They stand and watch the play. They fumble with the puck, eager to get rid of it. No one wants to make a mistake, but that just leads to more mistakes.

The snowball has reached six straight losses now, all in regulation. The morning of March 14, the Leafs ranked second in the Atlantic Division and third in the Eastern Conference. They had a nine-point cushion in the playoff race. Just 12 days later, all of that is gone. The Leafs rank fifth in the Atlantic, 10th in the East. They are outside the playoff picture – just outside, thanks to tiebreakers, but outside – with eight games to go.

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“Certainly we’re afraid of letting it slip away,” said winger Joffrey Lupul on Tuesday night, after a 5-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues that was far more dismal than the final score. “The whole year, we thought we were a playoff team, and we still believe that now. So it’s a matter of just going out there and doing it. Today we came out tentative.”

Two years ago, the Leafs collapsed down the stretch. Brian Burke, then the general manager, likened it to “an 18-wheeler going right off a cliff” as he fired coach Ron Wilson. Last year, the Leafs made the playoffs for the first time since 2004, and fans jammed Maple Leaf Square outside Air Canada Centre just to watch the first round on a giant screen – only to see them blow a 4-1 lead in the third period of Game 7 and lose to the Boston Bruins in overtime. Now this.

The Leafs are not done yet.

“We have a lot of fight left in us,” said winger James van Riemsdyk, wearing a white wristband with “Prove People Wrong” written in blue. “The season’s a long way from over.”

But this is brutal, torture in the Centre of the Hockey Universe, where the Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967, the longest drought in the NHL. The odds are against the Leafs in this position, and the odds caught up with the Leafs to put them in this position. Whether or not the Leafs make the playoffs, they need to take a long, hard look at GM Dave Nonis, coach Randy Carlyle and their overall approach.

The truth is, the Leafs aren’t very good. They never really were. When Carlyle took over, he talked about improving defensively, but the Leafs allow more than 36 shots per game, by far the most in the league. Last summer, Nonis bought out Mikhail Grabovski and let Clarke MacArthur walk in free agency, and he signed David Clarkson and acquired Dave Bolland. Clarkson, the seven-year, $36 million man, has four goals in 52 games. Bolland has played only 18 games because of an ankle injury. Nonis acquired goaltender Jonathan Bernier, too, and Bernier has been brilliant. But he wasn’t that big of an upgrade over James Reimer, and goaltending can take a team only so far.

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Early in the season, the Leafs got by with a potent power play, shootout wins and excellent goaltending. Critics said it wasn’t sustainable. The Leafs were still a team that lacked depth and broke down defensively. They were still one of the worst possession teams in the league. Sure enough, the power play sputtered, the shootout wins stopped and the goaltending faltered, especially when Bernier suffered a groin injury and Reimer struggled in relief.

Bernier returned Tuesday night. It didn’t matter. The first period was the story of their season. The Leafs got outshot badly. They took an early lead, anyway, when Lupul made it 1-0 on the power play. Bernier made save after save. But then the Blues tied it, and then the Blues took the lead. Captain Dion Phaneuf hesitated and turned over the puck at the Toronto blue line, and Bernier allowed a soft goal. The Blues blew it open after that. The score was 4-1 when a brief, faint chant could be heard at the ACC: “Let’s go, Blue Jays!” Yes, a few fans were mocking the Leafs by cheering for a team that lost 22-5 in spring training earlier in the day. It could be a long summer in Toronto.

Through two periods, the shots were 36-14 for St. Louis. The Leafs’ flaws were on full display. They couldn’t break the Blues’ cycle. They couldn’t get the puck out of their own zone, let alone sustain pressure in the Blues’ zone. In a sense, it isn’t fair to compare the Leafs to the Blues, now the top team in the NHL. No one expected the Leafs to compete for the Presidents’ Trophy. But this was a snapshot of how far the Leafs are from the league’s elite, and the weight of everything – the passion of the city, the recent history of collapses, the pressure of the losing streak – seemed to pile atop the problems.

“We did not have the puck, and when we did, we just slapped it around,” Carlyle said. “It was like we were frozen for 30 minutes of the hockey game. … There’s a lot of tenseness in our players. You could tell by the start of the game.”

The Leafs made a game of it in the third. They scored a couple of goals before allowing an empty-netter. They were only outshot 13-11, a relative victory for them. That was because the Blues had a big lead and didn’t play the same way. That was also because the Leafs loosened up playing from behind and didn’t play the same way, either. They played without fear. They let their skill come out. Somehow, they have to do that from the start of games – Friday night against the Philadelphia Flyers, Saturday night against the Detroit Red Wings, the rest of the way.

“There’s reason for concern, but it’s not completely time to panic,” Lupul said. “We’re still right there.”

They’re right there all right, teetering on the edge of the cliff, again.