One of the worst side effects of the NHL lockout came home to roost for Toronto Maple Leafs fans on Thursday night.
The compressed 48-game schedule and its murderous lineup of back-to-back, road-and-home games bit the Leafs where it hurts, as they came home from their best outing of the season against the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins to fall 7-4 to the woeful New York Islanders on Thursday night. The Leafs have nine back-to-back sets this season and seven are like this one, with them on the road the first night while the opposition is lying in wait in Toronto.
"That's the worst game we played," Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said. "We saw one team last night and a totally different team tonight."
By the end of the second period, as boos wafted down from the stands in the Air Canada Centre, the evils of the schedule were evident. The Leafs, who looked so good on Wednesday night in Pittsburgh in a 5-2 win over the Penguins and started strong Thursday night, were struggling to stay even with the Islanders.
The Leafs let a 3-1 lead slip away in the second period by coughing up two goals in 1 minute 26 seconds to Mark Streit and Brad Boyes. Then the Islanders took their first and final lead at 3:23 of the third period on a goal by Michael Grabner. Also scoring for the Islanders were Matt Moulson, with two unassisted goals, and Keith Aucoin, who was claimed on waivers from the Leafs last week.
In the players' view, though, calling it a lockout game rang of an excuse.
"It's not a time to make excuses," Leaf defenceman John-Michael Liles said. "Everybody is in the same situation. It's something we've got to learn. You have to simplify your game in the second game of back-to-backs."
Only it wasn't quite the same for the Islanders. Thanks to the quirky lockout schedule they had not played since Monday and were resting in their Toronto hotel beds Wednesday night while the Leafs were flying home from Pittsburgh.
"You have to concern yourself," Carlyle said earlier in the day about trying to keep a team rested, alert and healthy with that kind of schedule. "You can't expect your players to give you 110 per cent if they don't have the proper rest and nutrition. The body has to heal and it heals in various ways from bumps and bruises."
Another excuse for the Leafs is the loss of last season's second-leading scorer, Joffrey Lupul, for six weeks with a broken arm suffered in Pittsburgh. But Liles wasn't having any of that, either. "It's never easy to lose a guy like that but it presents an opportunity."
Lupul's spot on the top line was taken by Clarke MacArthur. The player who received the opportunity by getting called up from the farm team, forward Matt Frattin, almost stole the show.
Frattin, who was put on the third line with centre Nazem Kadri and left winger Leo Komarov, drew assists on both goals when Kadri and Mikhail Grabovski scored three minutes apart midway through the first period to put the Leafs ahead 3-1.
He came back to score late in the third period to inject a little life in the ACC as the Isles' lead was cut to 6-4. The Leafs pulled their goaltender and went with an extra skater for almost the final two minutes of the third period but Grabner spoiled the fun with an empty-net goal.
Carlyle made Thursday's game-day skate optional for his players after they flew home from Pittsburgh. It didn't seem to do much for them but the coach plans to follow that routine most of the time. He also expects most other NHL teams to do so as well.
"There are things post-game we try to implement that we never did back when Mark Osborne was playing," Carlyle said with a grin as he looked over at the former Leaf-turned-broadcaster. "There wouldn't have been flush [bike] rides or lifts taking place after a game. There would have been one area in the trainers' room where there was a six-pack so players could have a beer. Now it's a lot different."
Well, as they say about the best-laid plans, by the middle of the third period the Leafs were seriously awry. James Reimer, one of the heroes of the Pittsburgh win, was sent in to replace starting goaltender Ben Scrivens early in the third period but failed to rouse the Leafs.