TORONTO – The best statement about the current predicament facing the Pittsburgh Penguins came from a player who wasn’t even interviewed.
Evgeni Malkin sat in the visiting locker-room with his head in his hands long after his teammates had already taken their equipment off and headed for the showers on Saturday night. There was no need to ask the NHL’s scoring leader how he felt.
These Penguins, after all, were supposed to be a desperate team chasing a playoff spot. Instead, they only looked to be in a desperate situation after blowing a two-goal lead to the Toronto Maple Leafs and losing 6-2.
Pittsburgh has just one road win since Dec. 26 and remains five points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s up to the players,” said coach Michel Therrien. “There’s a price to pay to win games on the road and right now we’re having a hard time staying focused and executing.”
They were certainly facing a susceptible opponent.
The Maple Leafs entered the game as one of the NHL’s worst teams on home ice and were returning from a miserable road trip. On top of that, Pittsburgh scored two goals on its first three shots and had the home fans booing goalie Vesa Toskala.
But then, without warning, the momentum disappeared.
“Our focus wasn’t there,” said defenceman Sergei Gonchar, who returned from a shoulder injury for his first game of the season. “We didn’t play well in the second and third (periods). In the NHL nowadays you cannot do it. You’re not going to win any hockey games, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing.
“The focus has to be there for 60 minutes.”
Pittsburgh actually took a 2-1 lead into the third period before Jason Blake quickly turned the tables in Toronto’s favour. He scored goals 19 seconds apart, giving his team the lead for good and bringing the building to life.
The game-winner was Blake’s 21st of the season and will be shown on a few highlight reels. He spun and brought the puck from his backhand to his forehand before sliding it behind Marc-Andre Fleury.
Even though that was the decisive moment, Blake felt the game changed earlier on.
“I thought we did a great job in the second period,” he said. “We got pucks deep, we had our skating legs, we forechecked well, we had a lot of shots on net. Overall, I thought it was a great team effort and Vesa played great.
“It was just a good win tonight.”
Nik Antropov, John Mitchell, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Matt Stajan also had goals for Toronto (21-25-10).
Matt Cooke and Bill Thomas replied for the Penguins (27-25-5).
This game illustrates a problem they’re likely to face during a push for the playoffs. The rebuilding Maple Leafs looked much more relaxed and comfortable in a game they didn’t need to win as much as Pittsburgh.
It’s going to be an uphill climb. The defending Eastern Conference champions have to finish 16-9 just to reach 91 points – and that total hasn’t been good enough to qualify for the playoffs any year since the lockout.
“Every point is very important and we need them,” said Gonchar. “There’s not that much time left, we have to focus on every single point.
“Pretty much every single turnover can cost us the season.”
There almost seemed to be a collective feeling of shock in the visitors dressing room.
It was the Leafs that were reeling early in the game as Toskala had a rough opening 10 minutes. He was booed heavily after failing to get his glove on a long shot from Thomas at 8:34.
The game could have gotten pretty ugly at the point, with the home fans sarcastically cheering a couple successive saves and the Leafs trailing 2-0. But Toskala rebounded, stopping good chances by Ryan Whitney and Sidney Crosby during a power play just before the end of the period.
Those proved to be important saves.
“That’s what makes Vesa such a good goalie,” said Stajan. “Nothing fazes him. …
“He made some big saves later that people probably won’t even talk about. It’s saves like that that really swing the momentum our way. He was great in there tonight.”
The Leafs rewarded his efforts with a five-goal outburst in the third period. Interestingly, Therrien left Fleury in net for all six goals.
It was a fairly stunning 20 minutes.
“The third we just fell apart,” said Crosby. “We gave up some momentum there and we never got it back.”
The Penguins are just starting a crucial stretch that will see them play nine of 11 games on the road. They’ll try not to take the bad memories from this one with them to New York, where they’ll play the Islanders on Monday.
“We can’t change it now,” said Crosby. “There’s nothing we can do but try to erase that one and move on.”
Notes: Maple Leafs defenceman Ian White had a plus-5 rating … Pascal Dupuis was minus-5 for the Penguins … Malkin has 28 points (7-21) in 12 career games against Toronto … AHL callup Boyd Devereaux was a healthy scratch for the Maple Leafs … Ruslan Fedotenko also returned to Pittsburgh’s lineup after missing 15 games with a broken right hand … Announced attendance was 19,365.