TORONTO - There was a time when it was all in their grasp, before fans were calling for the coach to be fired and the team was inching closer to a top-five draft pick, before the goaltenders had forgotten how to stop the puck and moths had consumed the defence, before a 1-9-1 run that seems to have ravaged the Toronto Maple Leafs' playoff chances.
It was a time, well, that time was only a month ago.
The Leafs, it is easy to forget, opened February with three straight wins, the first two featuring James Reimer shutouts - 1-0 over Pittsburgh, 5-0 over Ottawa - the third a 6-3 rout of Edmonton.
Toronto was in seventh place in the Eastern Conference after a 6-3 win Feb. 6 over the Edmonton Oilers, four points behind fourth-place Philadelphia, and head coach Ron Wilson was thinking not just of his team making the playoffs but of getting home-ice advantage in the first round.
Then came the losses that sent Toronto tumbling down the standings. Ottawa, a point behind the Leafs on Feb. 7, went on a 7-1-1 surge and moved to within a point of the division lead after Wednesday's games. Washington and Winnipeg passed Toronto as well. Tampa Bay and Buffalo, tied for 11th in the East, were just one point behind, both with a game in hand.
So what went wrong?
Feb. 7: Jets 2 Leafs 1
This is where it all started to go downhill. Following the win over Edmonton, which improved Toronto's record to 5-0-1 in its last six games, the Leafs hopped on a plane for Winnipeg for their second game in two nights. Though they scored first, they did not have the legs to skate with the Jets. “The back-to-back games weren't a factor,” defenceman Luke Schenn said.
Feb. 9: Flyers 4 Leafs 3
It looked to be a playoff preview, a test to see how Toronto matched up against a Stanley Cup contender. But the Flyers dominated early at home, and tightened up their play late. Reimer, who had given up three goals in three games after the all-star break, was beaten four times in this game, something that was about to become a trend. And the Leafs, with the loss to Philadelphia, had now dropped 16 of 22 games against teams holding down a playoff spot.
Feb. 11: Canadiens 5 Leafs 0
Before his number was raised to the rafters, former captain Mats Sundin admitted that the “pressure to perform” in Toronto “can be overwhelming.” On cue, the Leafs put forth one of their worst efforts of the season. Reimer was pulled after allowing four goals on 15 shots and the team was booed off the ice. “We've done a lot of hard work to get where we're at, and we've let it slip a little bit in the last week,” captain Dion Phaneuf said.
Feb. 14: Flames 5 Leafs 1
Despite firing 41 shots on goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, the Leafs managed only one goal to open a swing through Western Canada. Mikhail Grabovski, who has gone all of February without a goal, blamed a new batch of sticks for his scoring woes. But there might be more to it than that. With his contract coming to an end, the Leafs and Grabovski have yet to come to terms on a new deal. At this point, there is speculation he might be traded.
Feb. 15: Leafs 4 Oilers 3 (OT)
A four-game slide came to an end when Tim Connolly, who had gone 17 games without a goal, scored in overtime. It did not matter that it came against the 29th-place team in the NHL; the players were just happy to win a game. “You don't lose four games in a row all that often,” rookie defenceman Jake Gardiner said. Um, you sure about that?
Feb. 18: Canucks 6 Leafs 2
A new streak began for the Leafs, who were thoroughly outplayed by the Canucks. Reimer was pulled for the second time in three starts. “Before the game, we sat in the dressing room and talked about how winning would make this a good road trip,” Phaneuf said. “We lose, and it's a bad trip. But, I'll be honest with you: There isn't a hint of panic in this room.”
Feb. 21: Devils 4 Leafs 3 (OT)
The Leafs picked up a point at home, but only after forcing overtime with 44 seconds left in the third period. And the point was overshadowed by another shaky goaltending performance, this one by Jonas Gustavsson, who ended February with an 0-3-1 record and an .880 save percentage. The next day, GM Brian Burke told a Toronto radio station that he might have to bring in goaltending help at the deadline. “Last night, I have no answer for that,” Burke said. “Three of those goals have to stay out - I'm not sure we're not going to be in the market before we're done.”
Feb. 23: Sharks 2 Leafs 1
Another loss. Another excuse. With the trade deadline only days away, head coach Ron Wilson hinted that the players might be distracted by all the rumours swirling around the city. Burke would later echo this sentiment by saying, “I think the trade deadline is hard on players, but I think it's murder on players in Toronto. And we just had a serious debate whether next year we're going to 1/8impose our own deadline 3/8 10 days earlier so the players can relax.”
Feb. 25: Capitals 4 Leafs 2
The Leafs gave up two early goals and lost once again - this time to a team directly above them in the standings - but Burke refrained from making a knee-jerk reaction at the Feb. 27 trade deadline. “That can't be how you guide the ship,” he said. “You can't change course because you have 10 bad days out of 180 or 190 days in the season. You can't. And I still believe this team can get it back on the rails.”
Feb. 28: Panthers 5 Leafs 3
Fans were still getting to their seats when Schenn gave away the puck for a goal 13 seconds into the game. Two minutes later, the Leafs went down 2-0 for the fifth straight game, causing fans to chants “Fire Wilson!” After the game, which left the Leafs with just one point in a four-game homestand, the coach sounded like a man defeated. “(Hearing the chant is) frustrating, but understandable,” Wilson said. “Everybody's frustrated right now.”
Feb. 29: Blackhawks 5 Leafs 4
With Wilson's job supposedly hanging in the balance, the Leafs headed out of town and actually jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the first period. But Chicago scored the next four goals, and the end result was the same. “This isn't pressure,” Wilson said, moments after the defeat. “Pressure is fighting for your life when you have cancer. Here, we're just trying to win hockey games.”
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