A season that started with so much hope for the Toronto Maple Leafs has slowly and painfully gone down hill. Only a few weeks ago, Toronto had the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. After last night’s loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, the team has lost seven in a row and find themselves tied for 10th place in the conference. Tonight, the Maple Leafs play the Detroit Red Wings, another team that has surprisingly struggled this year, and with both teams entering the game with 80 points, the playoff hopes for the loser of this game will likely be dashed.
Lately, the story for Toronto has been their goaltending. After an injury to Jonathan Bernier, James Reimer became the de-facto starter for the Leafs, a role that he appeared unable to handle. Reimer lost the first five games he played in since Bernier’s injury, allowing 18 goals in those five games. Toronto head coach Randy Carlyle said his goaltender “hasn’t been good enough” during this losing streak, but admits that the blame does not lie entirely on Reimer and Bernier.
“We have to win more 1-on-1 battles for the puck. We’re not strong enough on the puck in those areas,” said Carlyle. “Those are the things at this juncture in the season, it’s imperative we win those battles, and right now we’re not winning enough of them.”
The statistics back up the coach’s assessment. From the beginning of last season until now, the Maple Leafs have been routinely outpossessed and outshot in just about every game they play in. It did not hurt them last season, as they made the playoffs despite this overwhelming disadvantage, and this season started out well for Toronto, giving hope that lightning could strike twice. But there is only so much pressure a dam can take before it breaks and unfortunately for the Leafs and their fans, the floodgates have opened of late. Despite the losing streak, Toronto has not given up hope on their second consecutive playoff appearance.
“They’ve done it before,” Carlyle said after last night’s loss. “That’s what the belief is. They’ve proven to us before they can play this game at a high level.”
Detroit is also hoping to keep their playoff appearance streak alive, but theirs spans over two decades. The Red Wings have made the playoffs for 22 consecutive seasons, the longest active streak in professional sports. After moving to the Eastern Conference this year, it was expected that the streak would be easier to maintain since the Eastern Conference has been considered the “weaker” conference of late. However, injuries and age appear to have caught up with Detroit, putting their streak in jeopardy. If Detroit makes the playoffs this year, one player can pointed to as the reason why.
Gustav Nyquist has scored 18 goals since January 20, more than anyone else in the league during that same time span. He leads a decimated Red Wings team in goals and points, despite starting the season in the American Hockey League. It has been his hot hand that has allowed Detroit to earn seven out of eight points in their past four games, putting the team square in the middle of the race for one of the Eastern Conference wildcard spots. “Goose”, as he is nicknamed, has prevented Detroit from having theirs cooked.
“I think confidence grows every game you’re up here,” Nyquist said. “Right now, obviously scoring a little bit, that gives me more confidence out there with the puck.”
Nyquist appears to be yet another late-round draft steal for Detroit, who has long been lauded for their ability to find diamonds in the rough. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were sixth and seventh round draft picks, and Detroit picked up legendary defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom in the third round of the 1989 NHL Entry Draft. Nyquist probably is not going to have the same impact as those three players, but for any fourth round pick to be making the kind of impact he is for an NHL team, it can only be considered a great success.
Both Detroit and Toronto could use help around the league in order to make the playoffs. In addition to their matchup tonight, which both coaches are calling “the biggest game of the year”, the other two teams that are in the wildcard logjam play today. The Washington Capitals lost to the Boston Bruins in an afternoon matinée and the Columbus Blue Jackets play the Carolina Hurricanes at the same time as the Detroit-Toronto matchup. The playoff hopes of all the teams involved could rest on today’s results, and for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings, they can only hope it falls in their favor.
This article is one in a daily series providing coverage, analysis and predictions to NHL fans.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner
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