This, clearly, is a damning commentary on the manner in which these athletes committed themselves to preparing throughout the 113-day lockout for a season that might commence at any time. Few of the Leafs played competitively during that time, far too few it would appear.
On Thursday, a two-goal first-period lead turned into an ugly 7-4 loss to the New York Islanders. The Isles are a bad team that shouldn’t do that to any opponent, but the Leafs and their apologists cited exhaustion following a game the previous night in Pittsburgh.
On Saturday, after another one-hour flight — anything over 20 minutes appears to be utterly gruelling to this Eastern Conference team — and a day off, a two-goal lead evaporated against the New York Rangers in similar style.
This time, however, the Leafs either believed they could win while playing on their heels all night, or had no choice against a strong club that most believe will be competing for the Stanley Cup this spring.
“We just seemed to not have anything from an energy standpoint. They just swarmed us.”
Like the Leafs, the Rangers were also playing their third game in four nights, something good teams will have to deal with as 48 games are crunched into four months. They sure didn’t look tired, and part of that was because they used more people and their stars came to play.
The $ 22-million “Super Line” of Brad Richards between Rick Nash and Marian Gaborik accounted for four goals. They spread ice time pretty evenly among their four top blueliners and used their superior size to good advantage down low.
By contrast, Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf played 32 minutes and 38 seconds, while his partner, Mike Kostka, was out there for 31:33. Three players skated less than seven minutes and Clarke MacArthur played only 11 minutes before suffering an injury believed to be a lacerated finger.
The result was a 42-17 shots disadvantage and a rope-a-dope that didn’t work because, well, the experienced Rangers aren’t dopes.
Lundqvist’s counterpart, James Reimer, delivered a terrific performance, allowing four goals on 41 shots, stoning Nash on a first-period breakaway and repeatedly flashing the glove hand that so many have wondered about to make big saves.
“They kept coming, and we were hanging on, hanging on, hanging on,” said Phaneuf. “Eventually, they broke us. It was too bad, because (Reimer) was great.”
Against the Rangers, they led 2-1 after 40 minutes despite being outshot 25-9, and seemed to believe that the sag-and-sag-some-more approach would carry the day without having to try to score at all.
Instead, the Rangers activated their defence to create more outnumbered chances in the third, overwhelming the Phaneuf-Kostka tandem repeatedly and Reimer in the net.
“That was the best 60 minutes we’ve put together this year,” Richards said of the 2-3 Rangers. “Sometimes goalies can steal games. At times it looked like that could happen (tonight), but there’s nothing else to do but keep firing things at him and that’s what we did.
“Finally, the floodgates opened.”
They’re one of hockey’s youngest teams, but apparently one of the most easily fatigued.
Given that the pace of this schedule isn’t going to change, and home ice seems to offer no respite for the Leafs, a season that looked gloomy at the start with the reckless firing of Brian Burke suddenly seems worse.
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