TORONTO – Phil Kessel is more than holding up his end of the bargain. Now it’s up to the rest of the Toronto Maple Leafs to follow suit.
The NHL’s scoring leader pushed his league-best goal total to 13 on Tuesday night, but a third-period rally by the Maple Leafs fell short with a 3-2 shootout loss to the Phoenix Coyotes.
Kessel had one of his best games of the season, logging a game-high 26 minutes 32 seconds of ice time and looking dangerous virtually every shift he took. The only thing the red-hot winger failed to do was beat Mike Smith in the shootout.
“We battled,” said Kessel. “We really tried to win this game and we battled back. Hopefully we can build on it.”
It won’t be easy, not with two-thirds of the second line potentially out of action. Clarke MacArthur didn’t play after the second period because of an upper-body injury while Mikhail Grabovski limped off with a few minutes left in regulation following a collision near centre ice.
They’re two of the players coach Ron Wilson was hoping to get going offensively, but he might not have the chance with their status unclear for Thursday’s game in Nashville. On the bright side, the coach expects to have centre Tim Connolly back against the Predators.
With the season nearly a quarter of the way done and the Leafs having frittered away most of the cushion they built with a hot start, it’s clear they’ll need to start getting goals from more than just the top line. Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak created plenty of chances once again but the offensive push was rarely sustained when the other units took the ice.
Defenceman Mike Komisarek managed to chip one in Tuesday—ending an 87-game drought stretching back to October 2010—which got the third-period comeback started.
The veteran is tired of seeing his team struggle early in games, only to come alive in the later stages.
“We’ve got to bring that same resilience to start the game,” said Komisarek. “Not sort of feeling the other team out and seeing what kind of game it’s going to be, I think we need to dictate the play and assert ourselves.”
Shane Doan and Oliver Ekman-Larsson scored in regulation for Phoenix (9-4-3). Patrick O’Sullivan and Radim Vrbata clinched the victory with goals in the shootout.
Komisarek and Kessel replied for the Maple Leafs (10-6-2), who have dropped four straight games at Air Canada Centre.
The Coyotes improved to 7-1-2 in their last 10 games using a defensive-minded gameplan that they strayed from in the third period and overtime.
“We try to take away the Grade-A scoring opportunities,” said Doan. “Mind you, when they’ve got Phil Kessel he’s going to get a few chances going down the wing.”
Ben Scrivens started for the fifth time in Toronto’s last six games and endured a tough opening few minutes. Doan beat him at 1:54 with a wrist shot that handcuffed the rookie goalie before Ekman-Larsson extended the lead to 2-0 at 5:18 with a long wrist shot from the point that found its way through traffic.
However, Scrivens battled back from that point on with a number of big saves, including a glove stop on Ray Whitney in overtime that left the Coyotes forward looking skyward.
“We managed to hang in there and I was happy for Scrivs that he buckled down, he didn’t cave,” said Wilson. “He ended up with a lot of saves as the game went on.”
Toronto started the season with a 7-2-1 record but has gone just 3-4-1 since. The team’s growing injury list includes No. 1 goalie James Reimer (concussion), forward Colby Armstrong (high ankle sprain) and possibly Grabovski (lower body) and MacArthur (upper body).
The Leafs are clearly facing plenty of adversity as they try to pull out of a funk. In the wake of the loss to Phoenix, the players tried to focus on the third-period rally rather than the final result.
“We didn’t quit,” said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf. “We really showed a lot of resiliency to come back and get that point. They’re a team that doesn’t give up a lot.”
Notes: Phoenix is 6-0-0 against the Leafs since the lockout, outscoring them 29-13. … Kessel registered a game-high six shots. … Canadian tennis player Milos Raonic took in the game. He faces Pete Sampras in an exhibition match at Air Canada Centre on Thursday night. … Announced attendance was 19,522.