Rumor Focus: Toronto Maple Leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs entered December with a record of 14-9-2, having avoided a repeat of the early meltdown that doomed their playoffs hopes last season, and were ranked among the top eight clubs in the Eastern Conference.

December, however, proved a cruel month, with the Leafs winning only four of 13 games, sliding out of a playoff spot for the first time this season.

Not even a 7-3 drubbing of the Tampa Bay Lightning in their first game of the new year helped them gain ground in the standings.

The Leafs struggles over the past month have Toronto fans and media understandably nervous about the team’s chances of making the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

Injuries, of course, have contributed to the recent decline.

The Leafs were able to find ways to win in November, despite losing goaltender James Reimer, defenseman Mike Komisarek, centers Tim Connolly, Mikhail Grabovski and Matthew Lombardi, right wingers Mike Brown and Colby Armstrong, and left winger Clarke MacArthur at various times.

But as the injuries piled up, it finally took a toll in December. As many of those players returned to action, others (defenseman John-Michael Liles and center Tyler Bozak) were sidelined or re-injured (Armstrong).

Goaltending has become a problem area. Reimer was considered the starter at the beginning of the season, but a head injury sustained in an Oct. 22 game against Montreal knocked him out of the lineup for 18 games. He’s struggled to regain his form since returning, posting only three victories in December.

Backup Jonas Gustavsson, meanwhile, failed to seize the opportunity to finally prove himself a capable NHL starting goalie.

As a result, the Leafs entered the new year with the third-worst combined goals-against average and the sixth-worst save percentage. Only the Ottawa Senators, Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning have given up more goals.’