TORONTO – The wear and tear of an unlikely push towards the playoffs is starting to show on the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The team squandered four different leads to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night before watching Alex Kovalev score the shootout winner in a tough 6-5 loss.
It was a particularly difficult game for goalie James Reimer, who made some splendid saves in overtime but was beaten five times in an outing for just the second time in his young NHL career. Pittsburgh created plenty of traffic during the game and was able to wear down the Leafs goalie.
“I was feeling pretty tired towards the end of the game,” said Reimer, who finished with 35 saves.
Toronto did manage to gain some ground in the playoff chase as eighth-place Carolina was beaten 4-3 in Montreal. The Leafs are now five points back of the Hurricanes and visit the struggling Atlanta Thrashers on Sunday.
While most of his teammates tried to put on a brave face, Reimer admitted he’ll be thinking about the extra point that got away against Pittsburgh.
“I definitely think about the one lost,” he said. “Shootouts are tough, especially for myself. I’ve always thought I’ve been a pretty good breakaway or shootout goalie in the minors and even when I was growing up. … That’s a tough loss to take.”
Kovalev was the only player to score for either team during the tiebreaker. He came in slowly on Reimer and beat him with a wrist shot.
The veteran forward was reacquired by the Penguins in a trade with Ottawa on Thursday and is hoping to salvage a disappointing season with a franchise where he played from 1998 until 2003.
“It brings back old memories,” said Kovalev, who also scored in regulation. “I know I can be the same player and I feel like I have another opportunity to be that type of player and play in the playoffs. It’s exciting.”
Mark Letestu, Dustin Jeffrey, Max Talbot and Mike Rupp also scored in regulation for Pittsburgh (37-21-6), which ended a four-game winless slide.
Joffrey Lupul, with two, Colby Armstrong, Clarke MacArthur and Dion Phaneuf replied for the Maple Leafs (27-27-8).
With nine players out of the lineup, the Penguins are a shadow of the team that was challenging for first overall earlier in the season. They played their 23rd game without captain Sidney Crosby—still out with a concussion—and improved to 11-9-3 during that stretch.
However, a youthful lineup playing for the second time in as many nights didn’t show many signs of fatigue.
“They play a net crash game,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “We just weren’t quite able to cope with that for whatever reason. (We were) sloppy, they had too much time. It’s a hard game for the goalie to play when they play so much down below the dots, you’ve got to be in your stance a lot.
“We turned too many pucks over and mishandled some things in our end.”
There was a playoff-type atmosphere at Air Canada Centre, particularly after the Leafs rallied in the third period. Comebacks have been rare this season, but it took less than four minutes for them to turn a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 lead as MacArthur and Lupul scored 35 seconds apart.
The goals kept coming as Phaneuf turned the puck over and allowed Talbot to tie it on short-handed breakaway at 6:34 before atoning for the mistake less than a minute later by one-timing a shot to put Toronto back ahead 5-4. A floating wrist shot from Rupp tied it at 9:08.
“The way we grabbed the lead in the third period, that’s the part that stings,” said Wilson. “We couldn’t ever buckle down defensively in the third period and slam the door shut.”
There wasn’t much time to regroup. The team boarded a plane for Atlanta immediately after the game and Wilson was left to decide whether to give Reimer another start or send in J.S. Giguere, who hasn’t played since suffering a lower-body injury in Buffalo on Feb. 16.
Despite the disappointment that came with a loss, the Leafs took some solace in the fact that they can still move within three points of the Hurricanes by winning on Sunday. They are now 8-2-3 since the all-star break.
“We knew we weren’t going to win the last 20 (games),” said Lupul. “There’s going to be nights when we don’t execute as well as we want, but we got out of here with one point. It’s not the end of the world, that’s for sure.”
Notes: Toronto has played in six straight one-goal games … Paul Henderson performed the ceremonial faceoff in the sweater he wore during the 1972 Summit Series. … Joey Crabb was a healthy scratch for Toronto … J.S. Giguere served as Reimer’s backup. He hasn’t played since Feb. 16. … Penguins defenceman Paul Martin missed his fourth straight game with a neck and shoulder injury. … Letestu returned to Pittsburgh’s lineup for the first time since Jan. 25 … Announced attendance was 19,551.