In a season like this one, Canadiens fans have had to take solace in small victories, like the emergence of a solid first line, the development of younger players and the recent addition of some size and toughness to the lineup.
Knocking off the crumbling Maple Leafs at the Bell Centre on Saturday and crippling their playoff hopes further would be another one.
Toronto is in freefall, losers of six straight. They have one OT win and one regulation tie in their past 11 games — just 3 out of a possible 22 points — and are sinking fast in the East, currently in 11th spot, five points behind the Jets in eighth. The Leafs’ goaltending tandem of James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson has collapsed, the defence corps has been mistake-prone and — with the exception of Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul (who could be playing injured) — the forwards have gone dry.
“Never would have predicted this at all,” defenseman Luke Schenn said during the week as the losses mounted up. “You hear of teams going into slides a little bit, and dropping maybe a few in a row, and getting out of them. But right now it’s hard to even think of what’s going on. No excuses. We’re just not getting the job done.”
Since it appeared less than a month ago the Leafs could achieve their first playoff spot since 2004, fans and some in the local media began calling for the head of coach Ron Wilson. Fans at the Leafs last home game loudly chanted for his firing on Tuesday.
Wilson was replaced by Randy Carlyle, who coached GM Brian Burke’s Anaheim Ducks to the Stanley Cup in 2007. Carlyle was replaced earlier this season by Bruce Boudreau (and the Ducks have played rather well since then, going 17-6-4 since Jan. 1 and making a second half charge that saw them climb back into the playoff chase to just four points a few days ago, although two losses this week now have them seven points back).
Some — like The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell — have started to train their sites on Burke, who made no moves at the deadline to improve his parent club’s roster, although he had said he’d explore trading for a goalie. Wilson pointed out his boss failed to make a trade in his post-game press conference on Tuesday (video), which couldn’t have helped his situation. That game marked his 1.400th as an NHL coach. He’s now stuck on 1,401.
But if the Leaf players had had enough of Wilson’s abrasiveness and harsh sarcasm, they may want him back after dealing with Carlyle. On TSN Friday night, Keith Jones and former Leafs coach Paul Maurice both praised the move (video). Jones liked that Carlyle demands discipline and hard work. “This is a tough, hard-nosed hockey coach that knows how to win,” he said.
Maurice likes the fact that Carlyle might work the hardest of all NHL coaches in matching lines.
“His teams are well-prepared, they play hard, all the things that Brian Burke wanted from a hockey club when he came here and he talked about what he wanted to do with the Toronto Maple Leafs, that’s the way Randy Carlyle’s teams play. And you saw it in Anaheim — very physical, they play a mean game, they play a hard game,” Maurice said.
“And if it’s not the line he wants on the ice, they’re coming off regardless of where the faceoff is. It will be a change from the free flow game they’re used to playing.”
In another TSN segment (video), Maurice and Jones note that Carlyle has always used a third line, a checking line in matchup situations, but he may not have the personnel on this Toronto club to form one from his current roster.
It’s always hard to say how a team will immediately react to a new coach. Sometimes a struggling team feels rejuvenated — or scared, or guilty — and responds right away, reeling off a series of good games. As the Canadiens demonstrated after Jacques Martin was dismissed this season, that is not always the case.
But it could be a good bet that the penalty boxes won’t be empty on Saturday.
It’s certainly unknown how the Leafs may line up on Saturday. Gustavsson was reportedly slated to start in goal against the Habs, although he looked shaky at times in a 6-4 loss in Chicago on Wednesday. The overtime goal he gave up in his previous outing to the Devils Mark Fayne won’t be going on his personal highlight reel.
“It is true that Burke carries the blame for the fact the Leafs entered the season with a pair of unproven goalies – and if you thought Wilson’s bedside manner with Jonas Gustavsson and James Reimer was slightly indelicate, the new guy doesn’t do touchy-feely all that well, either – and also true that the Leafs finally made improvement in their special teams,” Jeff Blair wrote for Saturday’s Globe and Mail.
“But this season was marked by a startling regression in the play of youngsters Luke Schenn and Nikolai Kulemin in particular, two players who blossomed under Wilson, and that’s never a good sign – particularly for an organization whose GM spent the better part of four years weeding out what he thought were faint-hearted and modestly talented holdovers from the previous regime….”
“This hiring will be taken as a sign that Burke wants this team to get into the playoffs after missing the previous six postseasons, at a time when the stewardship of team owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is in flux.”
Thanks to Toronto’s slide, as Campbell points out, both the Habs and Leafs could simultaneously miss the playoffs for just the fifth time in NHL history, 2006-07, ’69-70, ’25-26 and ’19-20 being the only other occasions.