TORONTO – Their confidence is shattered. Their season is lost.
And if the Toronto Maple Leafs have any idea what’s behind a tailspin that seems to be fuelling a revolt among their passionate fanbase, they’re keeping it behind closed doors.
Randy Carlyle conducted a lengthy post-game meeting with his players after twice watching them blow leads on the way to losing 5-2 to the New York Islanders on Tuesday night. Rather than deliver a message to the group, he decided to go around the dressing room and ask questions.
“I wanted to hear how they felt about what was going on,” said Carlyle. “They were disappointed in the way they played.”
The coach didn’t think it was his place to disclose much more detail than that and the players refused to elaborate as well. While plenty of them hung around to speak with reporters following an eighth straight loss at Air Canada Centre, they provided little insight on what’s gone wrong.
“The message is for us,” said forward Matthew Lombardi. “We’ve got to believe in ourselves here and stay positive and move forward.”
It’s going to be very difficult, especially with many of their supporters having turned on them. Some fans attended Tuesday’s game wearing paper bags over their heads and loud boos rained down after Matt Moulson scored the eventual winner with six minutes to play.
In the dying moments, a couple people even chanted “Fi-re Burk-ie!”—although it was nowhere near as audible as the “Fi-re Wil-son!” chants that came before former coach Ron Wilson was shown the door earlier this month.
With the franchise heading for an eighth straight year outside of the playoffs, tensions are clearly running high in the city.
“This is one of the most storied franchises in the sport,” said Carlyle. “We can’t fault our fans for (their displeasure) in the way we played tonight. They’re allowed to do that and that’s their right.”
Moulson added a second goal into an empty net while Josh Bailey, David Ullstrom and P.A. Parenteau also scored for the Islanders (30-32-11). John Tavares chipped in with three assists while Parenteau picked up two.
New York sits 14th in the Eastern Conference—one point behind the Leafs with a game in hand—as fans of both teams cast their eye toward the bottom of the standings and the possibility of securing a high draft pick.
It wasn’t supposed to be that kind of season in Toronto, where the team sat firmly entrenched in playoff position until their current 4-15-2 nosedive. At least one member of the Islanders recognized the frustration showered on the Leafs following yet another loss.
“It reminded me of when I was a kid going to Leafs games,” said Moulson, who grew up in the city. “I was one of those fans in the stands booing when they were losing.”
Lombardi and Phil Kessel replied for Toronto (32-34-8).
Just 24 hours removed from their worst loss of the season—an 8-0 slaughtering in Boston on Monday night—the Leafs were looking for a better response. However, they managed just 14 shots on Evgeni Nabokov, bringing their paltry two-game total to 27 to start the week.
Even more concerning was the fact the fragile team blew a lead in both the first and second period on defensive breakdowns Carlyle felt shouldn’t have happened.
“We were up in the game a couple times and we let them come back into it and gain momentum,” said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf.
It was exactly the type of gameplan the Islanders were hoping to follow.
“We tried to get on them and frustrate them,” said Tavares. “We wanted to crush their spirit a bit.”
At 2-2 heading into the third period, the game remained up in the air until the late stages. Shortly after Leafs forward Matt Frattin was penalized for flipping the puck over the glass, Moulson parked himself at the edge of the crease and lifted a shot past James Reimer at 13:56.
Parenteau followed less than two minutes later with a breakaway goal that emptied the building.
“It’s nice to come through in the third period and get the win,” said Tavares.
The Leafs season is down to just eight games—five at home, three on the road—and the team is already assured of finishing a fifth straight year with less than 90 points.
However, it’s clear Carlyle intends to make the most of what little time he has left with the group. He’s been fairly warm and fuzzy so far, but it sounds like he’s ready to crack down on the number of defensive miscues and indifferent level of competitiveness exhibited by his players.
“There is a template that we are trying to create as a coaching staff,” said Carlyle. “We want to people to make sure that there are no grey areas of what is going to be expected.”
Notes: Kessel matched a career-high with his 36th goal … Luke Schenn was the only Leafs defenceman to see less than 20 minutes of ice time—he clocked in at 13:14 … Toronto’s last home win came Feb. 6 over Edmonton … Veteran defencemen Jay Pandolfo and Milan Jurcina sat out for the Islanders … Tyler Bozak picked up his 100th NHL point with an assist on Kessel’s goal … Lombardi suited up for his 500th career game … Announced attendance was 19,351.