Randy Carlyle was in an unenviable position.
He knew every time he put his three best forwards on the ice, trouble was brewing. Just couldn’t trust them. It wasn’t just about those three being unable to make smart decisions, but in some instances simply a lack of effort.
And so, by the end of the second period against the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday, enforcer Colton Orr had played more than Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk, and just slightly less than Phil Kessel.
That’s the kind of humiliating message a coach can deliver without saying a word, and Carlyle was undoubtedly hoping to provoke a positive response from his first line.
Didn’t happen. It just got worse. Every time Carlyle threw out that group in the third period, the puck seemed to end up in the Toronto net, three times in the final 20 minutes en route to a 5-2 loss.
Smartly, the Maple Leafs head coach shielded his top trio afterwards, making it a group criticism for being “flat, flat, flat, flat” and for appearing as though the home team was “wearing boots” while the Habs wore skates.
That’s partly true. But it’s also true that not only did the Kessel-Bozak-van Riemsdyk line fail to achieve anything defensively — Bozak was on the ice for all five Montreal goals — they did very little offensively.
The pièce de résistance came with more than two minutes left and the Leafs down by two goals with Ben Scrivens out for an extra attacker. Kessel carried the puck just outside his blue line and tried a peewee play, banking off the boards in the hope of regaining it himself.
Instead, Montreal intercepted the puck, and Brian Gionta found the open net for the fifth goal. A lovely parting gift for their guests from Quebec, as it were.
Against the Habs, Kessel and Bozak played the least they have played all season, and van Riemsdyk the least he’s played in a month.