PHILADELPHIA – Dion Phaneuf paused to consider the question.
Did the youthful Leafs – without starting netminder James Reimer, Tim Connolly, Colby Armstrong and Tyler Bozak on Monday night – gain confidence from keeping a game close against a team considered one of the Eastern Conference elite?
"Where are they at in the standings?" he asked sharply.
In the eyes of the captain, the Leafs had no reason to look up at the Flyers. With an overhauled roster – that no longer included Mike Richards and Jeff Carter – Philly had as much to prove as anyone.
Two points up on the Flyers entering the game, the Leafs were beaten 4-2 by a more talented squad at Wells Fargo Center, done in by the self-destructing duo of penalties and simple mistakes. But if the team from Philly is in a class above that of the Leafs – who entered the game with a sparkling 5-1-1 record – Phaneuf was not willing to concede it.
"We made some mistakes that gave them life, gave them momentum," said Phaneuf. "Don't get me wrong – they worked hard, they played hard, but we made some mistakes that cost us."
Jaromir Jagr scored twice on three breakaways – looking like a player half of his 39 years - and Scott Hartnell added a pair of his own as the Leafs lost in regulation for just the second time this season. Hartnell's power-play goal in the second period broke open a 1-1 tie – beating Phaneuf to the net – later extending the lead to two with the eventual game-winner midway through the third on a play that saw rookie Jake Gardiner just a second late to react.
"It was just bad positioning," said Gardiner after the game.
After David Steckel closed the gap back to one with his third goal in three games, Gardiner saw a puck bounce unfortunately over his stick in the neutral zone, springing Jagr for his second goal and the 4-2 clincher. "You don't want to see Jaromir Jagr coming in alone with nobody around him," said Ron Wilson, following the game. "He's going to more than likely bury it."
And he did on two of three occasions.
While the second was an unfortunate break that sealed the game, the first was preventable. Jagr somehow managed to meander past four Leafs on a power-play, beating a helpless Jonas Gustavsson for his first goal of the season. "We were caught sleeping," conceded Wilson.
Gustavsson made 26 saves in defeat, quite sturdy in just his second start of the season – this with Reimer sidelined by a minor neck injury. Starting on the day of his 27th birthday, Gustavsson began the game in fine form, stopping deflected point shots from Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen. "He played well," said Wilson. "A couple of spectacular saves, but we didn't do a good enough job obviously in front of him to help him win the game."
Sergei Bobrosky (24 saves) at the other end wasn't tested enough for Wilson's liking.
"I thought we had some real quality scoring chances," said Wilson. "I'm disappointed though that we didn't shoot the puck more when we had opportunities. We were trying to make an extra play, an extra pass and we hit a lot of sticks."
Still searching for his first NHL goal, Matt Frattin had a number of good scoring chances as did the trio of Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur – although they failed to shoot enough in Wilson's eyes. Phil Kessel meanwhile, continued his torrid start, scoring his ninth goal of the year to open the game.
The Leafs can't be faulted for the teams they've faced and beaten thus far – Montreal twice, Ottawa, Calgary and Winnipeg – but they'll need to handle a few better teams in the near future if only to establish credibility. A fast start is one thing, but continuing it against higher talent lends weight to its legitimacy. Up next they'll face the struggling Rangers in New York followed by the always plucky Penguins at home on Saturday.
Reimer is expected back on Thursday at Madison Square Garden. Wilson also inferred that Tim Connolly will make his Leafs debut against the Rangers with Tyler Bozak likely to return as well from a foot injury that's sidelined him the last two games.