The Toronto Maple Leafs blew a 4-1 lead before emerging with a 5-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tomas Kaberle’s second goal of the game 3:55 into overtime.
The start of overtime was delayed roughly 15 minutes when a spectator collapsed in his seat three rows from the side boards at about the same time Ryan Whitney scored for Pittsburgh with four seconds left in the third period. A woman immediately began what turned out to be a successful resuscitation attempt and the man was taken to hospital.
The Whitney goal, the life-and-death drama in the stands and Kaberle’s winning shot to keep Toronto in the hunt for a playoff berth made for a rollercoaster of emotions for the fans.
“It was difficult for both teams and everyone in the building,” Maurice said of watching paramedics work during the delay. “When you add that to the incredible emotional rollercoaster we’ve been on . . . “
“What we have at this point is positive,” he added in reference to the fallen fan’s status.
Toronto remained ninth in the East with 87 points, while Montreal edged Buffalo 4-3 to retain the eighth and final qualifying spot with 88. The Leafs have four games remaining and the Canadiens three.
“We didn’t care if Pittsburgh got a point, but we knew we couldn’t afford to lose points to teams we’re fighting for the playoffs with,” said Maurice.
Chad Kilger, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Bryan McCabe and Kaberle supplied the Leafs’ goals during regulation time in front of the largest crowd in franchise history – 19,649. It was Toronto’s seventh straight home win. The Leafs improved to 6-2-2 in their last 10.
Yet, they remained ninth.
Also scoring for Pittsburgh were Gary Roberts, Maxime Talbot and Sidney Crosby, who got his 36th to pad his league-leading points total to 117.
“In the second half of the game, we carried the play,” said Crosby. “It hurt us to fall behind by three, but we showed a lot of character in coming back.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said he didn’t see Kaberle’s winning shot from the blue-line.
“There was a defenceman in front of him and it went between his legs,” said Kaberle.
The Leafs play the Rangers in New York on Sunday night.
“It’s an exciting time,” Kaberle said following his fifth game back after missing eight with a concussion. “I’m happy to be back with the team and enjoying the race for the playoffs.”
Kilger opened the scoring at 4:28. A giveaway by Evgeni Malkin led to the scoring play. Jocelyn Thibault stopped a Kyle Wellwood shot and the puck dropped behind him into the crease. Kilger didn’t say thanks. He just poked it into the open net.
Roberts tied it at 6:54 on a power play. Bates Battaglia was off for tripping when the former Leaf raised his stick knee high to deflect Sergei Gonchar’s slapper from the point past Andrew Raycroft.
Ponikarovsky put Toronto ahead 2-1 at 18:30 when he redirected a cross-ice Nikolai Antropov pass, and Kaberle made it 3-1 at 3:08 of the second period when he blasted in a low slap shot from the blue-line.
McCabe made it 4-1 at 11:49 on a power play. Brooks Orpik was serving a hooking penalty. Thibault stopped a Mats Sundin shot and McCabe slammed in the rebound.
Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien signalled Fleury to don the mask and replace Thibault, who allowed four goals on 20 shots.
The Leafs were in control until Michel Ouellet served up a pinpoint cross-ice pass that Talbot redirected past Raycroft at 16:31.
The Leafs survived a minute-long, two-man disadvantage early in the third but the Penguins upped the pace. Battling with New Jersey for first in the Atlantic, they didn’t want to leave Toronto without a point.
Crosby shovelled in a rebound as he was falling to the ice with 4:38 remaining, setting up a nailbiter of a finish. Whitney’s stunning slap shot tied it, and Kaberle ended it.
It was yet another must-win game for the Leafs.
“Yeah, just like last week and the week before and the week before that,” said Raycroft. “It’d be nice to reel off a few more wins.”
“The bottom line is, if we win our games, we’re good.”
After the Rangers, Toronto plays at home Tuesday against Philadelphia, goes to Long Island to play the Islanders on Thursday and finishes up at home against the Canadiens on Saturday.
“There’s been times this season when we’ve bent a little bit, but we’ve put ourselves into position to still make the playoffs,” said Darcy Tucker.
Notes: Toronto outshot Pittsburgh 37-36. . . On power plays, Toronto was 1-for-4 and Pittsburgh 1-for-6 . . . Raycroft’s 36th win moved him within one of the single-season franchise goaltending record set by Ed Belfour in 2002-2003 . . . Sundin went an eighth straight game without a goal and remains one back of Darryl Sittler’s club-record 389. Sundin has only one goal in his last 16 games . . . Jeff O’Neill was a healthy scratch for the fourth game in a row . . . The previous attendance record was 19,646 for a 2004 playoff game against Ottawa, and the previous high this season was 19,620 for a Feb. 10 game against Pittsburgh . . . Pittsburgh had won four in a row and nine of its previous 11 . . . Roberts’ 18th goal was his fifth in 16 games since being acquired by Pittsburgh from Florida . . . In winning the three previous meetings, Pittsburgh outscored Toronto 18-8 and got 14 of its goals on power plays.