PITTSBURGH – The defeated look of a demoralizing loss hung on the face of Dion Phaneuf.
“It's unacceptable to have that lead and to lose a hockey game,” he said. “We sat back, tightened up a little bit and they took over the game. They just kept coming and they broke us.”
A seemingly safe three-goal third period lead evaporated for the Leafs on Tuesday night as they dropped a 5-4 decision to the Penguins at Consol Energy Center in the first half of a back-to-back, home and home set. Shut down for the better part of 59 minutes, NHL scoring leader Evgeni Malkin tied the score at four – a James Neal shot that deflected off his left shoulder – with just 6.6 seconds left in regulation, before icing Pittsburgh's eighth consecutive win in the shootout.
“It was a tough loss,” Joffrey Lupul concluded quietly. “We had the game. We let them back in.”
“I don't think there's a lot of time to be deflated,” Phaneuf continued.
“When games like this happen the way that the schedule is set up you've got to have short memories…we've got to forget about it quick and move forward because we're playing them again [Wednesday] night.”
Controlling the pace and play for most of the night, the Leafs came out of the All-Star break with the intensity and urgency required of an impending playoff push, but imploded in the final five to 10 minutes.
“It's hockey,” Mikhail Grabovski said simply. “You always need to be ready for every minute on the ice. I think we little bit slow down in the last 10 minutes and we lose one point.”
Missing point aside, the Leafs do jump into eighth in the Eastern Conference (56 points), moving one point up on idle Florida, but now six points behind Pittsburgh. Perhaps most revealing will be the club's response to the unsettling loss, an opportunity to strike back at the Penguins on Wednesday night in Toronto.
1. Ron Wilson felt Tuesday's game ultimately turned in Pittsburgh's favour on the Penguins third goal, a crashing sequence and finish from Joe Vitale, which began when Tyler Bozak failed to clear a puck along the wall. “We just had to chip it off the boards and we were trying to make a play,” Wilson said. Still up one with less than a minute to play, Grabovski had a chance to bury a puck deep in Penguins territory, but made a stab at the empty net, an attempt that was picked off. “All we had to do was chip it off the boards and the game would've been over and we didn't do that,” Wilson said.
2. Grabovski's terrific performance loomed in the shadows of the loss. He scored twice and added an assist on his 28th birthday. “He had two and he could've had a lot more,” Lupul noted. “He's bringing a lot of energy right now. You can really see he's got his confidence back and got his legs.” Barreling in on a two-on-none with Nikolai Kulemin in the second, Grabovski had a glorious chance for the hat trick, but dished to Kulemin, who was unable to get a shot on net. “He's open,” Grabovski said. “I just try to pass to him, bad bounce a little bit off the ice.” Another productive night nonetheless for Grabovski, who has posted 11 goals and 22 points in the last 20 games, including 16 points to lead the club in January.
3. Bozak had a goal taken away unjustly in the opening minutes of the first. The 25-year-old beat Marc-Andre Fleury with a back-hand in the slot, but the goal was immediately waved off with the officials deeming interference on the part of Lupul. Replays showed that the 28-year-old did not make contact with Fleury. “Bad call,” Lupul said with a grin. “Refs make mistakes too. I didn't touch the goalie.” “And then it changed to we pushed their defenceman into the goalie and that didn't happen either,” Wilson added. “Just in hindsight now it was an important goal to have waved off.” Bozak later scored his eighth of the year on a powerplay in the third.
4. Phil Kessel finished with four shots and a few good opportunities in the loss, but continues to meander through his quietest offensive stretch of the season. The 24-year-old has just two goals and one assist in the last nine games (minus-6 rating). He concludes January with a mere seven points, his first single-digit month of the season.
5. Special teams continue to move in opposite directions for the Leafs. Their penalty kill polished off a perfect month (17-17), the first team since the Blackhawks in 1974 to go an entire calendar month without allowing a powerplay goal (minimum 10 games). The powerplay meanwhile, scored once on Tuesday, but has just two goals in its last 24 opportunities, clearing missing the quarterbacking presence of John-Michael Liles.
Carl Gunnarsson led the Leafs in ice-time at 29:42, a season-high for the 25-year-old…Kulemin posted his second consecutive two-assist performance…Bozak snapped a 10-game skid with his third period goal…Gustavsson made 31 saves in defeat…Fleury made 35 saves in the win. “Their goalie made a number of huge saves at key points in the game where we could've really shot out to a bigger lead,” Wilson noted. “But no excuse we should've got the job done.”…Grabovski has 22 points in 19 road games this season...Liles, Colby Armstrong and Darryl Boyce all sat with injuries.