TORONTO – It was the kind of night where the Toronto Maple Leafs could have used some of Wendel Clark’s leadership.
They looked every bit like a rebuilding team after taking a 3-0 lead over the Chicago Blackhawks, only to let it slip away on a special Saturday night at Air Canada Centre. While there was no hint of stage fright after watching Clark’s No. 17 raised to the rafters before the game, the signs of inexperience started to show in the third period.
That’s when Toronto squandered a two-goal lead, setting the stage for David Bolland’s overtime winner to give Chicago a 5-4 victory.
“We definitely would like that third period back,” said Leafs forward Matt Stajan. “What can you say? Kudos to them, they outplayed us that whole period. I don’t think it’s a secret.”
The final 20 minutes saw the Leafs in a fairly unfamiliar situation.
It was just the sixth time in 20 games this season that Toronto held a lead heading into the final period. Once Chicago turned up the pressure and started pushing hard for a comeback, the Leafs seemed to lose control.
“They just kept coming and coming and coming,” said Toronto coach Ron Wilson. “The outcome was inevitable. We weren’t supporting the puck, we got way too far ahead of our (defence).”
The night was filled with tributes to Clark. The Toronto players wore patches with his number on their jerseys and many among the sellout crowd of 19,474 sported stick-on handlebar moustaches that were handed out at the stadium.
Clark became a fan favourite in the 1980’s when he was the best player on some pretty bad Leaf teams. While the franchise is in the midst of retooling once again, there seems to be much more optimism two decades later.
Stajan has been one of the players who has benefited from getting more opportunity this season. In addition to leading Leaf forwards in ice time on Saturday, he had a goal and an assist to push his point total to 19 in as many games. With three-quarters of the season remaining, he’s already within 20 points of his career best.
The 24-year-old grew up in nearby Mississauga and seemed particularly moved to be part of the ceremony for Clark.
“You get the shivers there on the blue-line when you see something like that,” said Stajan.
Bolland is another local boy who was thrilled after scoring the overtime winner in front of more than 50 family and friends. It was just the seventh career NHL goal for the former first round draft pick, who looks to be coming into his own on a very talented Blackhawks team.
After taking a nice pass from point man Duncan Keith, he skated around Leafs defenceman Jeff Finger and beat Vesa Toskala 49 seconds into overtime.
“I just took one step (into the slot) and it was a wide-open cage for me,” said Bolland.
Added Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville: “He made a great play on the goal to tie it and a special play on the overtime move. His overall game is very effective, and (it was) a great finish to today’s game. That’s what he’s capable of.”
Patrick Sharp, with two, Patrick Kane and Ben Eager also scored for Chicago (10-4-5), which has won three straight games.
Pavel Kubina, Dominic Moore, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Stajan replied for the Maple Leafs (7-8-5).
The game didn’t appear to be headed for a Toronto loss early on.
Kubina opened the scoring at 17:37 of the first period with a knuckleball shot that sailed high over Nikolai Khabibulin. Stajan then had a chance to extend that advantage on a penalty shot after getting hauled down with 8.7 seconds left in the period, but the Chicago goalie got his pad on the backhand deke attempt.
Revenge was soon to come. Stajan scored his sixth goal of the season at 3:23 of the second after taking a nice touch pass while skating through the offensive zone and backhanding the puck behind Khabibulin.
It looked like the romp might be on when Moore’s nifty backhander made it 3-0 Toronto, but Sharp responded with a pair of goals just 2:20 apart. He tipped Keith’s point shot behind Toskala at 13:43 and pumped his fist wildly after beating the Leafs goalie with a hard wrister at 16:03.
Ponikarovsky restored the two-goal advantage before the end of the period but the advantage didn’t last too long. Kane scored 58 seconds into the third before Eager swooped in and tied it with a goal from in-close at 12:27.
Suddenly, it was tied.
“We have to learn from these kind of things,” said Moore. “Obviously we’ve had our fair share of comeback wins, but it’s different thing when you have a lead, knowing how to manage the game.”
It’s something all teams have to do before getting better.
Toronto has two full days to digest its most recent loss before hosting Atlanta on Tuesday night. Even though Saturday’s game didn’t end the way the team had hoped, there was plenty the Toronto players wanted to keep in their memory.
“It was a special night for anyone who was here,” said Moore. “We would have loved to have pulled out a victory for Wendel, for his honour.
“But I don’t think there’s any honour lost.”
Notes: The Maple Leafs failed to score on a 5-on-3 power play that lasted 55 seconds during the second period. They’re now 0-for-15 on the season with a two-man advantage … John Mitchell was back in the Leafs lineup after missing five games with a shoulder injury. He had an assist … Chicago scratched Brent Sopel and Dustin Byfuglien … Both teams finished 1-for-3 on power plays … It’s been 17 games since the last time Toronto was outshot.