Carolina vesus Toronto...is there a worse matchup in professional sports today?
I would probably take the over/under on the Cleveland Browns versus the Kansas City Chiefs personally, but last night's Hurricanes-Leafs extravaganza was a microcosm of how both of the NHL's least successful teams to date this season have fared.
In the second meeting of the year between the teams (the first of which Toronto won handily) the Leafs, on the road, roared out to a 3-0 lead, only to drop the game in a shootout by a 6-5 final score (h/t to former Bruin Stephane Yelle, who scored his 1st on the year in the rally).
The great Jonas Gustavsson, whose plaque some Torontonians had already engraved for the hallowed hall downtown, has continued to falter of late, and if you're a Leafs fan who is truly honest with yourself- the thought of this guy carrying your team to a playoff spot plays much more like the next Mission: Impossible sequel than anything else.
Last night, Gustavsson was in net when his team blew the lead and then got schooled in the shootout. Now, I'm not saying that the Monster can't be a good NHL goaltender, but the fact is- he's been thrown into the fire, and his lack of experience at this level is costing his team points they can ill afford to give up.
I know Leafs fans don't want to hear about Tuukka Rask, but compare and contrast Gustavsson's performance last night (both played in shootout games) to that of Boston's rookie and onetime Leafs castoff. Rask isn't costing his team their season, and the presence of Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas means that Rask isn't under the suffocating pressure that Gustavsson is under right now. After watching a cool Rask stone Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk in the final shootout attempt last night to preserve a point for his team, is there any Leafs fan out there who is still honestly going to say that they'd not have more points than 12 if their top pick in '05 was their goalie today?
One of the more misunderstood maxims of hockey goaltending is this: it isn't how many saves you make, but when you make them that matters. On the face of it, Gustavsson stopped 40 shots, but when his team needed him to make a big one to preserve the lead and win, he couldn't do it against Erik Cole. Rask surrendered the lead in regulation too, but he stood tall at crunch time, stopping all three shots in the extra five minutes and stoning Rich Peverley, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Kovalchuk in the shootout. The performance raised his record to 4-2-1, with a .911 save percentage and 2.49 GAA. Gustavsson: 3-4-4, 3.23 and .901. Not much of a margin for error.
Last year's darling Luke Schenn is having a rough year and has taken a beating both by his coach, who has dramatically reduced his ice time and role, and in the court of public opinion. Schenn was the franchise's future face and golden boy, but how quickly the tide has turned against him this season is a barometer for how bad it has gotten in Toronto of late. He's a good defenseman and will bounce back, but it couldn't be a worse time to have a sophomore slump.
The Leafs were a weak team on paper going into the season, but going 3-17 in their first 20 games is beyond what anybody in Leaf nation had to envision for the club at the quarter mark.
In losing to the injury-ravaged 'Canes who are without their two most integral players, the Leafs are now back in the NHL's basement, and barring a major shakeup, what are the team's options?
Phil Kessel has delivered the offense this month, which is great news for the team, but will he be able to sustain it over the course of the campaign? If he can, then Toronto may be able to climb closer to the top of the NHL's bottom 10, but if not, they're in big trouble. Even with his scoring, the team is still losing a lot of hockey games. What happens to the Leafs if he goes into a slump? Who picks up the slack?
The goaltending has been poor, the defense mediocre and offense carried by a couple of overachievers. This is a recipe for sour times, and to be honest- I don't have the faintest idea of what Toronto can really do. Fire Ron Wilson? Send some of the weak links packing? What then? It's a tough Catch-22 to be in right now whether you're Burke or a fan of this team.
And things aren't going to get any easier in the near future. Next up: the Eastern Conference-leading Washington Capitals tomorrow night at the ACC.