Consistency continues to elude the Toronto Maple Leafs, as they let a third-period lead and a chance to catch the Detroit Red Wings slip away.
More lapses in their own end saw the game wind up in a shootout, where the Red Wings won for the first time in seven attempts this year, 5-4 at the Air Canada Centre. That made it two wins in a row for Detroit, who are saddled with a long list of injuries, after a winless stretch of six games.
Those exasperating Leafs – decent one minute and awful the next - were on display again Saturday night. They managed to fight their way back to take a 4-3 third-period lead on David Clarkson's third goal of the season – a dirty jam-in from the crease the Leafs have been looking for all season from him - but could not get out of regulation time with the win.
Goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who replaced James Reimer after the first period, tried his best, stopping Pavel Datsyuk on a shorthanded breakaway in the third period, but could not overcome his teammates' defensive deficiencies. After Toronto forward Phil Kessel failed to clear the puck, the Wings were able to get it to Tomas Tatar at the net and he scored at 13:44 to set up overtime.
If the Maple Leafs could somehow cut blocks of time out of their games and then stretch them over a full contest they would be one heck of a hockey team indeed. Such as the first seven minutes and 15 seconds of the first period and the last eight minutes and 15 seconds of the second period.
During that stretch, they kept their legs moving for the most part at both ends of the ice and gave the Red Wings fits. They also looked good for parts of the third period except for yet another slip on the tying goal.
"We didn't start the way we wanted," Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul, who finished with a goal and an assist, said. "[The Red Wings] got some goals we'd like to have back. We didn't get any offence going in the first period but we fought back in the second."
The Leafs did managed to take a 1-0 lead in the first period and then tied the score 3-3 with two goals in closing out the second period.
Peter Holland set up the first Leaf goal with some tenacious fore-checking behind the Detroit net. That saw the puck get to the slot and then to defenceman Cody Franson at the point for his second goal of the season.
The trouble was, the Leafs went back to standing around in their own end again, watching the Wings take the puck to the net. And this time Reimer was not able to perform any heroics to keep them in the game.
Reimer, who was not entirely at fault, allowed three goals in a span of nine minutes and 11 seconds in the first period to let the visitors take a 3-1 lead into the second. It also resulted in the hook, the fourth time this season Reimer was pulled from a game.
This one was seen by about two million people, as the Hockey Night In Canada cameras caught Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle going over to goaltender Jonathan Bernier as the Leafs left the ice at the horn. The camera shot was so close and clear no one had trouble reading Carlyle's lips: "You're going in."
If you could read Carlyle's mind as easily, it would have been no surprise to discover the coach would have liked to similarly give the hook to three or four of his defencemen as well, if such a thing were possible. While Reimer did not look good on a wraparound goal by Joakim Andersson, he was also left to fend for himself on the other two goals.
On the first one, Wings centre Pavel Datsyuk was allowed to come out of the corner untouched by either of the Leaf defencemen, John-Michael Liles and Morgan Rielly – and get to the front of the net where he beat Reimer with a backhand. That made short work of the Leafs' early lead, coming one minute and 42 seconds later.
"Not happy," was Reimer's initial reaction to getting pulled. "I don't think there's a goaltender in the league that's happy when they get pulled."
While Reimer admitted he was at fault on the wraparound goal and could have had the third goal by Tomas Jurco "on some nights," he wanted to stay in the game.
"Yeah, I think that's what any goalie wants," he said. "You want that chance to get in there, battle for your teammates and try and get a win. Obviously, Randy [Carlyle] had other thoughts. He's the coach and he's the one who makes the decisions. I just try and stop pucks."
The coach did not offer an explanation to Reimer ("No, at the moment there was no explanation it was just a switch," the goalie said.), but Carlyle told reporters it was not long after the opening faceoff he started having doubts about his starter.
"I thought with Reimer the very first shot that he took went in his glove and out of his glove," Carlyle said. "I thought the rebounds were bouncing away from him. When a goaltender is in the zone, the pucks don't usually go through him. Their third goal went through him. I felt the wraparound goal was a stoppable wraparound."
The Leafs managed to regain control of the game at the midway mark of the second period, although for a while it looked as their former teammate Jonas Gustavsson was unbeatable. He came into the game with a 9-3-2 record and .920 save percentage, mostly in relief of No. 1 goaltender Jimmy Howard, who is one of many injured Red Wings.
Shortly after Leaf captain Dion Phaneuf scored at 11:45 on a one-timer off a beautiful feed from Lupul, Gustavsson made what some immediately nominated as the save of the year. Phaneuf wired a shot from the point at the open net with Gustavsson seemingly down and out. But he managed to dive back toward the right side of the net, throw out his stick and stop the shot.
Phaneuf called it "the best save ever made on me, that's for sure. I started to put my arms up."
However, Lupul scored a power-play goal at 18:24 to send the teams to the third period tied 3-3. That gave him a goal and an assist after going three games without a point following a four-point night against the Chicago Blackhawks on Dec. 14.
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