Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier (45) and James Reimer, right, watch from the bench with defenceman Jake Gardiner, left, and Tim Gleason (8) after Bernier was pulled in the last minutes of the game against the St. Louis Blues during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Tuesday, March 25, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
TORONTO - There are many questions surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs, namely: How did this happen?
How, in less than two weeks, did a team that was sitting pretty in second place in the Atlantic Division fritter away a three-point lead over the Montreal Canadiens and nine-point advantage over the Detroit Red Wings?
As the players come to grips with the roots of their six-game losing streak, Tuesday's almost-comeback against the St. Louis Blues highlighted a big issue: Why can't the Leafs play with the desperation they show when down two or three goals at the start of games?
"That's the million-dollar question right now," winger James van Riemsdyk said. "It seems like every time we get down we start to ramp it up, and then it's always just a little too little, too late at the end."
It may be too little, too late for the Leafs if they can't figure out how to solve that problem. They're tied at 80 points with the Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals but are fourth among those teams for the Eastern Conference's two wild-card spots because they've played the most games (74).
Of course that also means their eight remaining are the fewest among those in the race and there's not much time to figure out slow starts, a central problem during this losing skid. Against the Blues, the Leafs scored first for the first time since March 10, but they also gave up a season-high 23 shots in the opening period and were hemmed in their zone often.
"We just couldn't get out of our zone," winger Joffrey Lupul said. "They put a lot of pressure on us, and we couldn't handle it."
Coach Randy Carlyle noticed some of the pressure that has been building on his team early on Tuesday night.
"There's a lot of tenseness in our players," he said after the 5-3 loss. "The first three puck recoveries, we just slapped the puck away. We didn't pick up the puck and skate with it at all. That's showing signs of being nervous, tense, (a lack of) confidence not wanting to make a mistake, which led to more offensive-zone time (for St. Louis)."
The listless Leafs led for less than five minutes, then trailed from the time David Backes scored with 32.3 seconds left in the first period until the end of the game. It was only after ex-Toronto forward Alex Steen scored to make it 4-1 that the Leafs showed some fire and launched a comeback bid that fell short.
At this point, players are even self-aware that the transformation is happening once they fall behind.
"It seems like when we get down, then we're playing with no fear, we're letting some of our skill take over, our defencemen are rushing the puck out of the zone and making plays," Lupul said. "There's something to be said about being down and not having that fear anymore, but realistically we've got to play like that right from the start. It's more of a psychological thing than it is a physical thing."
If it's a mental problem, defenceman Carl Gunnarsson doesn't have the answer.
"We've been talking about it," he said. "I don't know what's going on there, but we've got to figure out a way here to change it."
Changing it and managing to play as well as they did in the bulk of the third period against the Blues would give the Leafs a good chance of coming out of this tailspin and making the playoffs.
Gunnarsson and goaltender Jonathan Bernier agreed that, although that's a challenge, the end result could be scary for opponents.
"If we play like we did in the third period for 60 minutes, I don't think there's a lot of teams that can beat us," Gunnarsson said.
Of course if the Leafs make mistakes like they did in the first half of the game and throughout this losing streak, they can lose to any team left on the schedule. They visit the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday before returning home to face the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday and also have games against the Calgary Flames, Boston Bruins, Winnipeg Jets, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators to close out the season.
We have a lot of fight left in us," van Riemsdyk said. "There's eight games left, and we'll have to leave it all out there in every game."
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