Last night was the first time this year that I truly got that, “Oh-shit-we-really-might-be-that-bad” feeling. A first period 5-on-3 advantage that failed to produce even one shot was the momentum changer that led to two Lightning goals 29 seconds apart in a game that the Leafs never really looked like they even wanted to win. Howard Berger accurately compared the Leafs’ current slide (1-6-3) to the one that started the season last year, the only difference being the eight point cushion they gave themselves with four wins to open the year. As Berger notes, there’s one thing and one thing only that will get the Leafs out of their current funk, and that’s a win. Sure, those two shootout losses weren’t for nothing, and scored the Buds a couple of much needed points, but the lack of confidence that made itself clearly evident in Tampa last night will only be alleviated by a victory.
There won’t be many better chances for the Leafs to get that win than tonight against the Florida Panthers (5-7-0), who are one of the few teams with less points than Toronto. Still, the Panthers have given up fewer goals than any team in the East except the Boston Bruins, and it’s not very likely that the Leafs get the benefit of playing backup Scott Clemmensen again, whom they beat back on October 26. Instead, former All-Star Tomas Vokoun will probably be between the pipes, while the Leafs will answer with Jonas Gustavsson.
Phil Kessel will be happy to play the Panthers, and hope to end his current six-game scoring drought, which started after he scored his 7th goal against the Panthers. He also has five goals in his last six games at the BankAtlantic Center. One thing I noticed during last night’s game was Kris Versteeg’s demotion to the 3rd line. Now I’m well aware that the Leafs brought him in with the expectations that he would be a top-line forward, but consider this: Versteeg spent a good portion of his time in Chicago in a checking-line role, with guys like Kane, Toews, Hossa and Sharp ahead of him on the top two lines. Perhaps a move to a similar role in Toronto might re-commit Versteeg to the type of two-way game that he’s gotten away from, evidence of which was no more obvious than the Lightning’s nail-in-the-coffin third goal in the last minute of the opening frame. Instead of sticking with the play and ensuring that the puck got out of the zone, Versteeg was hanging out in the neutral zone and could do nothing but watch as the Bolts buried their 3rd goal of the period along with any chances of a Leaf comeback.
If there is such a thing as a must-win game this early in the season, for Toronto, tonight is it. Losing tonight would stretch their current losing streak to seven games, one short of the debacle that crippled their season last year. Puck drops at 7:30 pm, and the game will be televised on TSN. Go Leafs!