TORONTO – For 53 minutes, they appeared well on their way to snapping a skid and building a few good vibes. Seven minutes later and the Leafs' season-long winless drought had hit four with a punch to the gut, the Penguins snatching defeat at the Air Canada Centre.
"It's not all doom and gloom," said Randy Carlyle after the 3-1 loss, opposite a Pittsburgh club that has now reeled off seven straight victories, "but it's doom and gloom when you lose the way we lost because it tears at your fabric, at your heart because we're finding a way to lose the game instead of finding a way to win the game."
Stung from one of their worst performances of the year two nights earlier in Winnipeg, the Leafs returned home with an effective blue-collar game against the seemingly unflappable Penguins.
Within a matter of minutes, the lead was lost and their spirit singed.
Two goals in about five minutes from Pascal Dupuis in the final seven minutes of regulation, including the eventual winner with just over two minutes left, erased a 1-0 lead and suckered the Leafs with a spirit-sapping loss.
"The toughest part about it is we lost because of our own mistakes," said Cody Franson, who assisted on the Leafs lone goal from Tyler Bozak. "It wasn't for lack of effort or anything like that. There was a couple mental errors that we made in the last few minutes of the game and they capitalized on everything."
Up one and in control the game turned in a hurry.
After Chris Kunitz shoved Korbinian Holzer off the puck behind the Toronto goal, Sidney Crosby employed eyes on the back of his head to find Dupuis just outside the crease for the game-tying goal. An empty Leafs power play and Leo Komarov's misfired breakaway attempt followed, before Kunitz found Dupuis again unmanned in the high slot for the eventual winner.
"Fundamentally, we had some breakdowns that cost us the hockey game," Carlyle said.
Despite reasonable efforts in defeats against Boston and now twice versus Pittsburgh – they fell in a shootout on Saturday – the winless skid is dug in at four. With bitter memories of a second-half collapse last season not all that far in the rear-view mirror – they now sit seventh in the East with 31 points – the Leafs know they must halt this snowball before it rolls too far out of control.
"I know they're not feeling good," Carlyle concluded, his mood concerned but generally optimistic. "They're upset with themselves, they're frustrated, all those things, but it's about regrouping and getting ready for Winnipeg. We can't change what happened tonight, but we can sure try to make an imprint on what's going to happen on Saturday."
1. Missed opportunities on the man advantage
When they rallied for a point against Pittsburgh in their last meeting (a 5-4 shootout loss), the Toronto power play scored twice on goals from Phil Kessel and Cody Franson. But on Thursday evening, the man advantage came up empty in all three opportunities, a trio of penalties by Penguins defender Brooks Orpik. Maybe most critical was the missed chance with Orpik in the box for the second time, mere seconds after Dupuis had tied the score at one. Another power-play followed with just 23 seconds left in regulation and Pittsburgh up a goal, also falling short. "That's when you've got to find a way to win it," Carlyle said. "And that's the difference between the success and failure of tonight in my mind. Fundamentally, we made two mistakes, but if we score on the power play, I don't know if we have to worry about it."
The Leafs boast a top-10 power-play on the road – eighth at 20 per cent – but a bottom-5 man advantage – 15 per cent – at home.
2. Line and Role Mix-up
Looking to spark some balance in his team's offensive attack, Carlyle mixed up his line combinations ahead of the Penguins game. Most notable was his decision to break up the long-held duo of Mikhail Grabovski and Nik Kulemin, who had become almost non-existent offensively. Kulemin joined the Nazem Kadri-Clarke MacArthur unit, Grabovski flanked by Leo Komarov and Matt Frattin. "We just tried to see if we could mix things up a little bit," Carlyle said. More intriguing than the combinations, however, were the role assignments. Featured in the checking line gig all season, Grabovski and his linemates were not utilized in that manner at all against the Penguins. Instead, Carlyle went power for power, matching his top line of Bozak, Kessel and James van Riemsdyk opposite the incredibly potent combo of Crosby, Kunitz and Dupuis. The strategy worked – that is until the final seven minutes or so when Dupuis scored twice to snatch two points for Pittsburgh. "I thought they managed it fairly well until the last two mistakes that were made cost us goals," noted Carlyle.
3. Bozak v. Crosby on the draw
Bozak scored his seventh goal of the year on a pair of nifty feeds from Kessel and Franson, but was hammered on the draw by Crosby. The 26-year-old lost 15 of 21 faceoffs (29%) against the Penguins captain, including a 2-11 mark in the first. "He's a pretty strong guy," Bozak said after the opening 20 minutes. "I'm trying to block his stick and what not, but he's really strong on his stick and his timing is unbelievable too so he's got pretty good assets there." Ranked 26th league-wide after Thursday evening – just behind Crosby, who sits 16th – Bozak finished eight of 25 overall, among his worst performances on the draw this season.
4. Offence from Grabovski and Co.
Anxiously awaiting a hint of offence from Grabovski and his now-juggled linemates, Carlyle isolated the faceoff circle as a potential starting point. "I think the first thing is faceoffs," said Carlyle before the loss to Pittsburgh. "If you're not starting with the puck, then you're defending... any line, I guarantee you, would rather start with the puck than have to chase it and recover it." Carlyle noted that any such improvement did not fall on the centreman alone, but required (as per usual) secondary aid from teammates on the ice. Grabovski has been hit or miss on the draw, a sampling of his work in the past five games revealing such a trend: 7-13 (54%) vs. the Penguins, 4-14 (29%) vs. the Jets, 9-14 (64%) vs. the Penguins 2-11 (18%) vs. the Bruins, 12-21 (57%) vs. the Senators.
While he showed increased jump on Thursday, Grabovski remained pointless for the sixth time in the past eight games, totaling two shots in about 15 minutes.
5. Liles returns
John-Michael Liles was a healthy scratch for 12 consecutive games before returning to the lineup against the Penguins. "It's never easy," he said, prior to the game. "Every guy in this room is a competitor and there's a reason why we are where we are; it's because you have that drive to play and you want to play. I'm no different from anybody else."
Liles took the place of Mike Kostka, who appeared understandably worn in recent days, on a second pairing with Carl Gunnarsson. "I thought he came in and gave us good quality minutes," Carlyle said afterward of Liles, who played 17-plus minutes. "He jumped up in the play and played the type of hockey that is suited for him, that's his game. He's a small guy that's got to join the rush and move the puck effectively, see some offensive time on the power play; I thought he did well for us."
The Komarov family
With a breakaway late in the third, Komarov could have sealed a storybook moment with family in attendance for the very first time. His mother Natalia, father Alexander, and younger brother Oskar made their first trip to North America this week, flying into Toronto Sunday from their native Finland before watching Komarov in their very first NHL game on Thursday. Of the three, Komarov felt his father would enjoy the event most. "I think he's excited," the 26-year-old told TSN.ca before the game. "This is the best league you can play in and a pretty good team we're playing against, too." The elder Komarov was there in 2011 when his son claimed gold with Finland at the 2011 World Championship in Bratislava and now finally watched him in the NHL. Komarov was unable to beat Marc-Andre Fleury and is still stuck at one goal this season.
Quote of the Night
"It's not all doom and gloom, but it's doom and gloom when you lose the way we lost because it tears at your fabric, at your heart because we're finding a way to lose the game instead of finding a way to win the game."
-Randy Carlyle, on the sting of Thursday's defeat.
Quote of the Night II
"It's a couple games here. I don't think it's time to lose our minds or anything like that."
-Tyler Bozak, questioned on the team's recent struggle in comparison to last season.
3-Games: Point-streak for Kessel. The 25-year-old has three goals and three assists in that span and has retaken the team lead in scoring from Kadri, now with 26 points this season.
53-58: Leaf penalty kill over the past 18 games, including a perfect 3-3 evening opposite the Penguins fourth-ranked power-play. The unit now sits sixth overall at 84.4 per cent.
2: Penalties drawn by Kadri.
2: Shots for Matt Frattin in three games since returning from a left knee injury. Frattin has been quiet with no goals and a single assist.
24:05: James van Riemsdyk, most among Leaf forwards and his second-highest mark this season.
For the second time this week, the Leafs take on the Jets, this time at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday.