PITTSBURGH – Just when it seems that the Maple Leafs might be turning a corner does the inconsistency, which has branded the team through the first two-plus months of the season, emerge yet again.
Sidney Crosby ultimately sunk Toronto's ship at the Consol Energy Center on Monday night, beating Jonathan Bernier with the eventual game-winner in the final minutes of the third frame. Though his team would hold serve with the tattered Penguins for most of the evening, Randy Carlyle couldn't help but express disappointment at parts lacking, specifically a stunted start.
"It's disappointing tonight," said Carlyle, clearly frustrated following the 3-1 loss. "We didn't come out jumping like I thought we would. I thought we would have lots of energy and be on the puck and jumping and we just seemed like were a step behind."
Energy was to be expected after a stunning home victory against the defending Stanley Cup champions two nights earlier, but it was notably absent in the opening period. Whatever momentum they'd established against the Blackhawks seemed to short-circuit upon arrival in Pittsburgh, much in the way it did in St. Louis last week.
Only 39 seconds had elapsed before the Penguins snatched hold of the lead, Chris Conner redirecting a point shot behind Bernier.
"I thought we were a little flat off the gate," said Bernier, who made 28 saves.
Outshot 15-7 in the period, the Leafs managed to even things out in a second that saw them fire 13 shots at Marc-Andre Fleury. Morgan Rielly capped the resurgence with his first career NHL goal.
"I think as a team we hoped to play a bit better than how we did," said Rielly, who played 19 minutes. "I don't think we were playing our game in terms of how we usually skate. I think we were a bit slower tonight."
Unable to generate much in the third, the Leafs were ultimately undone by a series of mistakes and missed opportunities which resulted in Crosby's game-winner.
There were the mostly failed efforts of the power-play, including one in the final minute. There was the Nik Kulemin attempt that missed just wide of an open cage. There was the icing which saw Jake Gardiner fire the puck beyond the tape of James van Riemsdyk (though he and his teammates believe it touched a Penguins defender at the offensive blue-line). And though Jay McClement won the subsequent defensive zone faceoff, there was the failed clearing attempt from Gardiner and the inability to check the game's greatest player in the slot.
"He's the best player in the game for a reason," said Dion Phaneuf of the Penguins captain. "He has been for a long time. He makes a real good shot there."
More good has emerged from the Leafs in recent days, including strong efforts against the Kings and Blackhawks, but the Jekyll and Hyde of their inconsistency remains.
"I think we've kind of flirted with the way we can play," said van Riemsdyk, "but we've got to do it more consistently."
1. Rielly's First
It took 41 shots for Morgan Rielly to score his first goal in the NHL.
Winding up with a wrist shot at the top of the left circle on a power-play, Rielly slung the puck by a surprised Marc-Andre Fleury.
"It's a pretty nice feeling," said the 19-year-old about the goal, "but it's always tough when the team loses and you're not overly happy after the game because of what the score was. But it's pretty nice just to get it out of the way."
Rielly is tied for fifth in scoring among rookie defencemen with 10 points in 26 games.
2. World Juniors?
Rielly had been a healthy scratch for three consecutive games last week, at which point it seemed that a trip to the World Juniors was all but certain. And then he was reinserted back into the lineup for four straight games, predictably quieting the assumption.
Carlyle made clear after Monday's game though that a final decision had not yet been reached on whether to send Rielly to Sweden.
"We're going to have a tough decision here coming that's for sure," he said.
Be it Carlyle, Dave Nonis or any member of the management team, the Leafs have stressed that they'll do what's best for the long-term development of their prized rookie defender. But that assertion typically included the caveat that Rielly would remain in the NHL if he was playing regularly and contributing.
"We feel that he can play here and make a contribution," said Carlyle, questioned on the subject on Dec. 2.
The decision will come soon. Canada plays its first pre-tournament game on Friday.
3. Surviving Injuries
Like the Leafs – if not more so – the Penguins have endured a substantial amount of injuries at key positions, notably on defence. Pittsburgh has been without three of its top-four on the blue-line – Rob Scuderi, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik – and just placed Kris Letang on injured reserve.
And yet, they've continued to win, now nine victories in the past 10 games. Boasting two of the top players in the world certainly helps, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin pacing the league-wide scoring race, as does terrific goaltending, but the Penguins have also benefited from the steady contributions of players plucked from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre.
"I think all the guys who have come in deserve a lot of the credit," said Crosby. "They've been thrown into some pretty important situations right off the bat here and they've done an unbelievable job. They deserve a lot of the credit. That's impressive. You have seven, eight guys from Wilkes-Barre coming in and playing the minutes that they're playing and doing the job they're doing that says a lot about the depth in our organization."
It's a model to replicate for those clubs beset by injuries, including the Leafs, who remain without Dave Bolland and Tyler Bozak.
Contributions from the organizational ranks have picked up steam for Toronto in recent days with Trevor Smith, Jerry D'Amigo, and Peter Holland – who never played for the Marlies, but slides down the depth chart with a healthy lineup – all chipping in amid a challenging stretch.
What the Penguins survival efforts highlights is the value of quality depth within an organization.
"I don't know if you necessarily get an appreciation for it when there's only one or two guys coming up," said Crosby. "When it's this many guys that have to come in you definitely get that appreciation."
Pittsburgh entered the night with 161 man games lost to injury compared with 101 for Toronto following the game.
4. Leafs Goaltending Still Good, But Not Quite Heroic
Despite their struggles defensively, the Leafs managed to win 10 games in October, largely on the heroics of their two goaltenders (and special teams). Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer have remained a solid duo in November and December, but not nearly to the largely unsustainable level they were at early on as the table below indicates.
Save Percentage Splits for Toronto Goaltenders
"We've been very, very fortunate with our goaltenders," said Carlyle on Monday morning. "They've been very, very good for us. We've made a lot of mistakes along the way, but our goaltenders have been able to provide with us that save and timely saves."
5. D'Amigo's Rough Night
First Jerry D'Amigo was hammered into the boards by Zach Sill. Then he was crunched twice in the neutral zone by Robert Bortuzzo, the first of which drew a penalty for a hit to the head, the latter ending the 22-year-old's night.
The NHL said shortly after the game that Bortuzzo would not be suspended for the first offence.
"It's a 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6 guy on skates delivering a check to a 5-foot-10 guy," said Carlyle of the collision. "It didn't look good from the bench where he hit him with his shoulder, but I can't say that I can comment other than I only saw it in live time and it's difficult."
Departing the game briefly after the first hit (likely for a concussion test), D'Amigo returned before he was crunched into the boards once more by Bortuzzo, appearing to favour his shoulder as he left the ice for good. Carlyle had no update on the Binghamton native following the game, but he was seen leaving the arena in considerable discomfort.
1-1-1 – Leafs record against Pittsburgh this season.
1-6-3 – Road record for the Leafs in the past 10 games.
39 – Seconds elapsed before the Penguins opened the scoring.
40 – Shots on goal for Morgan Rielly before scoring his first career NHL goal against the Penguins.
15 – Assists for Cody Franson this season, tied for the team lead.
19:04 – Ice-time for Rielly against the Penguins.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 24.1% (3rd)
Season: 76.9% (27th)
Quote of the Night
"We're going to have a tough decision here coming that's for sure."
-Randy Carlyle, on the impending decision on Morgan Rielly and the World Jrs.
The Leafs play host to the Panthers on Tuesday night.