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Leafs Improved But Still A Ways To Go

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

RELATED: A Closer Look: Playoff Hopes Take A Hit | Motown Misery For Leafs
VIDEO: Game In Six | Wilson | Phaneuf | Reimer | Schenn | Lupul | Crabb
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It began with a home ice win over Montreal.

It ended, practically at least, in Detroit against former Leafs farmhand Joey MacDonald who came into the game in the third period when Red Wings’ keeper Jimmy Howard injured his shoulder.

What a strange, strange trip it’s been.

The Leafs fell to the Detroit Red Wings Saturday 4-2. The loss left Toronto seven points behind the streaking Buffalo Sabres, the number eight team in the East, with six games to play. The Leafs had won three in a row to stay around. They play Buffalo, Tuesday. The Sabres have garnered nine of their last 10 points. In the judicial system Tuesday’s game would be listed under a faint hope clause.

Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul scored for the Maple Leafs who rallied from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits. The Detroit goalscorers were Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom, Jiri Hudler and Todd Bertuzzi into the empty net.

The Wings’ victory was a lesson in guile, a study in the little things and some of the big as well. The Leafs are 24th in the NHL on the power play. They whiffed on the four opportunities they enjoyed. Worse yet, the Leafs' power play ground the game to a stop, sapping any impetus Toronto might have generated with an active attack. The Red Wings meanwhile got their first two goals on the man advantage.

Both of these special teams begin, literally, in the face-off circle and it was here that the young Leafs were found lacking. The Red Wings won any face-off they wanted to win.

The trouble with youth, and the Leafs are the league’s third youngest team, is that you can’t wish it away. There is no element of hockey more dependent on experience than the face-off and few are more important.

This is not news. The Leafs hunger for a number one centre who can work with Phil Kessel and win his share of face-offs. There is no free-agent who fits that description save for Brad Richards.

They need more size up front. Perhaps that will soon be provided by the Marlies’ Joe Colborne. They need a wheeling defenceman. They are grooming one in Jake Gardiner.

Not quite enough present but oh, so much future.

Seven players, Luke Schenn, Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Carl Gunnarsson and Keith Aulie soared past any earlier plateaus in their careers. Dion Phaneuf got his bite back. James Reimer wrote the most compelling Leafs story in recent memory. Kadri returned an infinitely better player after spending nearly a season in the minors.

You can look to last week’s exasperating loss in Florida, but the season was lost early. Six straight losses in November come to mind.

There was turnover - Tomas Kaberle, Kris Versteeg and Francois Beauchemin were ditched around the deadline - a fruitless search for a centreman for Kessel after Bozak struggled mightily, heart problems for Jonas Gustavsson the designated goalie of the future and groin miseries for the incumbent Jean-Sebastien Giguere. December ended with calls for the firing of Ron Wilson. February ended with people shouting for a contract extension.

In the end, you fall when your qualities can’t overcome your failings. The Leafs' speed, commitment and emerging skill, (look at the Kadri goal for evidence of that), could not overcome their lack of size among the forwards, a leaky power play and a lamentable lack of experience.

All this and they lost to one of the best teams in the NHL, on the road, by a goal and an empty netter.

Yes, there is a distance between the Leafs and the teams whose presence in the post-season seems pre-ordained. It is a substantial divide. But you can reckon it now. You can imagine it. That’s what was gained in 2010-2011.

The playoffs shifted from an idea to something more tangible. In Detroit that idea slipped away, hopefully to be reconstituted in an even more potent form next year and for years to come.
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