The Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t in the playoffs because their goaltending wasn’t very good.
It isn’t a whole lot more complicated than that.
Now, there are contributing factors by the boatload but what you need to know is that when the club went into the abyss in February they surrendered the opening two goals in five straight loses. In the sixth they blew a 3-1 lead and fell 5-4 to Chicago, February 29.
The players who ambled out of the Leafs dressing room Monday tried without success to explain how a team with a 90 per cent probability of making the playoffs in early February dropped like a stone the rest of the way.
They couldn’t speak to the most obvious problem: goaltending.
The low points? A shaky Reimer gives up four goals in seven shots as the Habs rout the Leafs 5-0 on Mats Sundin night? How about Jonas Gustavsson having to leave his net to deflect a shot by the Devils’ Mark Frayne and hand New Jersey a 4-3 win, Feb. 29.
The Leafs surrendered 264 goals, 99 more than the league’s best defensive team, the St. Louis Blues. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning gave up more goals.
Teammates, of course, don’t throw their goalies under the bus. Heaven knows there were extenuating circumstances, none more important than the neck injury that knocked James Reimer out of the lineup for two months and limited his effectiveness when he came back.
Reimer sounded a hopeful note when he said a weekend visit to a Montreal specialist revealed a problematic but treatable neck injury.
“It was something that was really fixable and that’s something good going forward,” said Reimer.
With Jonas Gustavsson’s confidence rising and falling in the last few months, the Leafs never really recovered from Brian Gionta running over Reimer in October.
The Leafs couldn’t kill a penalty in the first half of the season. The head injury that knocked John-Michael Liles out of the lineup Dec. 22 denied the team a key puck mover. Liles returned six weeks later but was never as effective as he had been in the early going.
With Colby Armstrong and Mike Komisarek injured and ineffective, the club could ill afford to lose Liles from its leadership group. Without the lieutenants vital to a captain’s success, Phaneuf couldn’t find a tonic to pull his team out of the fire.
But the only remedy to those ills was a rebound in the goaltending and when that didn’t happen the season imploded.
GM Brian Burke has brushed aside media suggestions that the fault lies with goaltending coach Francois Allaire but solving the hemorrhage in the blue paint remains his most daunting task.
In September every prediction of a playoff spot was predicated on solid netminding.
The Leafs goalies had to reckon with an often-error prone defence and a defensively indifferent crop of forwards. Reimer is just 24 years old remember and young goalies are prone to epic ups and downs.
But what can’t be argued is this: all the club’s failings came to rest in whatever net the Leafs were defending.