PITTSBURGH – The good was ultimately overshadowed by the bad.
Unraveling at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh on Wednesday night, the Leafs dropped their third game in the last four, falling prey to the potency of a relentless Penguins attack. The visitors failed to land even a single shot in the third period and overtime.
"I thought we did some things good for parts of the game," said James van Riemsdyk, who had three points in the 6-5 shootout defeat, "but obviously against a team like that you give them an inch and they're going to take it all."
A string of penalties, an increasingly ineffective penalty kill, and a submissive third period spelled doom for the Leafs on this night. Leads of 4-1 and 5-3 evaporated into another concerning loss, this one on the heels of a 6-0 pounding from Columbus on Monday night.
"There're some good things we did in the game tonight that put us in the position we were in," said Cody Franson, referring to the aforementioned leads, "but we've got to do a better job from the position of holding a lead."
Riding out the wave of an early first period storm, momentum was firmly on the Toronto side in the opening moments of the middle frame. Bang-bang goals from van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel 29 seconds apart in the first minute of the second bumped the lead to 4-1 while ending the night of Marc-Andre Fleury.
What followed, however, was a disastrous string of five consecutive penalties, the imposing Pittsburgh power play scoring three times before Evgeni Malkin finally evened the score at five early in the third.
Owning the final frame, the Penguins outshot the Leafs 17-0, not a single shot coming the way of rookie netminder Jeff Zatkoff until the shootout; he stopped both Tyler Bozak and David Clarkson.
"We stopped skating. We stopped forechecking. We stopped playing," said Randy Carlyle of his team's final 25 minutes, frustrated with a number of issues including the officiating on this night. "There's no explanation for us not getting any shots in the third period."
The Leafs are now 4-5-2 in the month of November – only two of those wins in regulation – the underlying concerns of a seemingly quick start coming to the forefront.
Carlyle has been banging loud on the drum for improvements all year – even amid a 6-1-0 start – more urgently of late though. And while the Leafs certainly did some good on this night, including an effective fore-check that helped generate two of the four even-strength goals – they had 10 such goals in the previous 10 games – it was disturbingly overshadowed by the ills of what went wrong.
Defensive issues, both at even-strength and on the penalty kill – Jonathan Bernier faced 48 shots, four nights after James Reimer faced 50 – amid an inconsistently produced style have left the group in search of answers as a three-game road trip continues in Buffalo on Friday night.
"There was obviously some really good stuff," said Carl Gunnarsson, "but how it ended doesn't feel that good.
"We got one point, but the way it looked going into the third I think we all wanted more than that."
1. Struggling Penalty Kill
As the second-best penalty kill in the NHL last season the Leafs allowed only 19 power play goals in 48 games. Disjointed in recent weeks and now ranked 20th overall this season, the unit has already allowed 20 power play goals in just 25 games.
The Penguins scored three on Wednesday night, the fourth time already this season that the Leafs have yielded two or more in a game (they gave up two or more only three times all of last season).
Over the past 11 games, the special teams unit has yielded 13 goals on 44 opportunities for a shallow success rate of 71 per cent.
"PK wasn't really there today," said Gunnarsson. "We took too many stupid penalties."
Increasing the pressure on the troubled penalty kill has been the number of penalties. Only one team (Ottawa) has taken more minor penalties this season than the 113 the Leafs have been whistled for.
Jerred Smithson was called for a questionable hold in the offensive zone moments into the third and van Riemsdyk was then penalized less than a minute later for hooking, also in the offensive zone. James Neal scored on the subsequent five-on-three advantage, the third Pittsburgh goal with the man advantage.
"It gave them all the momentum," Carlyle said of the penalties. "You can't take penalties in the offensive zone. You can't take penalties when you're down a man. It was a hooking and a hold."
2. More Pressure on the Goalie
Yielding 48 to the Penguins the Leafs are now dead-last in shots against this season (36.1 per game). While Bernier and Reimer both succeeded amid relentless onslaughts early and often this season, including a 49-save performance from the latter on Saturday night, the heavy pressure has, of late, been too difficult to withstand.
During this recent four-game struggle, of which the Leafs have lost three, Bernier and Reimer have combined to post an .892 save percentage.
3. Disaster Frame
Cody Franson hadn't realized his team had failed to generate even a single shot in the third until it was announced in the arena. It was the first time since April 2000 that the Leafs landed zero shots on goal in a period. "We received most of that period," Franson said.
Unable to mount any kind of resistance to the Penguins attack the Leafs wilted under the considerable pressure and skill of their opponent. Rarely was a moment or more spent in the offensive zone, almost no work to be had for Zatkoff and plenty on the opposite end for Bernier.
"They were coming and we couldn't really ride out the storm," said Gunnarsson.
"We've got an old enough group and a veteran core that should be able to grab a hold of it and make a difference with our structure and the way we were playing," Carlyle said.
4. Officiating Concerns
Among the frustrations for Carlyle and the Leafs was the officiating. Most disturbing to them was the non-call on Malkin's game-tying goal.
"He pushed the goalie first and then deposited the puck," said Carlyle of Malkin, who edged Bernier into the goal before pushing the puck across the line. "But we're not supposed to complain about that stuff."
Asked if he received any explanation, Carlyle said, "By that time they didn't want to talk to anybody. They get to a position where they think that they don't have to talk to people I guess."
The Leafs coach also wasn't pleased with the "soft call" on Smithson early in the third.
"I don't know what he's supposed to do," Carlyle said. "He got on the right side of the guy and he took the man out. They saw it differently."
Additionally befuddling Nazem Kadri was a goaltender interference call that opened the doors to the home team's comeback. Bumping incidentally into Zatkoff behind the Pittsburgh goal, Kadri and the opposing Penguins were initially told that no call would be made; Zatkoff, they said, had caused the contact. An official behind the play though deemed it a penalty.
5. Gardiner Scratched
A healthy scratch 10 times last season, Jake Gardiner was scratched for the first time this season on Wednesday night. Gardiner, who actually led the Leafs with nearly 24 minutes against the Blue Jackets on Monday, didn't appear pleased with the news but seemed to understand it.
"I didn't play good so I wasn't too surprised," Gardiner said of his last game, which also saw him on the ice for three goals against in a 6-0 defeat to Columbus. "I've just got to make better decisions with the puck."
Carlyle, who had a lengthy chat with Gardiner at Wednesday's morning skate, said lineup changes would be made with the "best interest of the team" in mind. "That won't change," he said. "That's our DNA and we've been very honest and forthcoming with our players that that's the decisions we make and sometimes it doesn't always sit well with individuals and it shouldn't. If your number's not called you should be upset."
Paul Ranger replaced Gardiner in the lineup against the Penguins. Teamed with Morgan Rielly, Ranger played nearly 22 minutes after sitting the past two games himself.
"Just be a little more consistent, just all around with decisions," Ranger said of re-entering the lineup. "Keep pushing to get back into the pace of the game here. Be reliable in my own and make some good breakout passes and play the system that we're playing."
Bonus Point - Lupul's Luck
Over the course of his first five seasons in the NHL, Joffrey Lupul rarely missed a game.
Lupul played in 372 of 405 games (with the Ducks, Oilers and Flyers) or 92 per cent of the time. The next five seasons would bring with it a different strain of luck. The now 30-year-old played in 181 of 316 games (with the Ducks and Leafs) or just 57 per cent of the time. Having already missed time in Toronto with a dislocated right shoulder, fractured right forearm, concussion, and bruised foot, Lupul will now miss at least two weeks with a groin injury.
"That's the ballpark figure they gave us," said Carlyle, who replaced Lupul in the lineup with Peter Holland.
71% – Success rate for the Leaf penalty kill in the past 11 games.
19 – Number of power play goals allowed by the Leafs in 48 games last season.
20 – Number of power play goals allowed by the Leafs in 25 games this season.
3 – Multi-goal games for James van Riemsdyk this season.
0 – Shots in the final 25 minutes for the Leafs on Wednesday night.
2 – Even-strength points for Phil Kessel in November. Kessel scored his team-leading 13th goal this season in the middle frame on Wednesday night.
24:37 – Ice-time for Tyler Bozak against the Penguins, first among Leaf forwards.
113 – Minor penalties for the Leafs this season, second most in the NHL.
Special Teams Capsule
Quote of the Night
"We can't expect our goalies to stop 50 shots a night."
- Carl Gunnarsson, following a 48-shot outing for Jonathan Bernier on Wednesday night.
The Leafs make their final trip to Buffalo on Friday, clashing with the Sabres for the third time this season.