TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs weren’t ready to let their playoff dreams slip away.
Trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 after a lacklustre opening 40 minutes on Wednesday, the players took an honest assessment of their situation during the intermission.
“I think we realized that it’s do or die,” said forward Clarke MacArthur.
The Leafs responded with a rare third-period comeback as Phil Kessel tied the game before setting up Mikhail Grabovski’s winner just 42 seconds into overtime. The 3-2 victory over Pittsburgh moved them back within four points of eighth-place Carolina in the Eastern Conference standings.
“We came out storming in the third (period),” said James Reimer, who made 27 saves in goal. “The guys deserved it. … It was a real sweet victory for us, it was a good one to watch.”
There was very little time for celebration as the team boarded a plane immediately after the game and flew to Philadelphia. They’ll face the conference-leading Philadelphia Flyers—and former teammate Kris Versteeg—on Thursday night.
After improving to 9-2-4 since the all-star break, the Leafs wanted to focus on the strong finish against the Penguins rather than the flat opening to the game.
“It’s good for our confidence,” said coach Ron Wilson. “We were a little tentative, a little tight for most of the game. We found a way to hang in there.”
Nikolai Kulemin had the other goal for the Maple Leafs (28-27-9).
Matt Niskanen and Chris Conner replied for Pittsburgh (37-21-7).
Some bizarre scheduling saw the Penguins play their second consecutive game at Air Canada Centre. They returned to Pittsburgh for a couple days of practice after Saturday’s 6-5 shootout victory over the Maple Leafs before coming back to Toronto.
This game was nowhere near as fast-paced as the first one. The strain of playing so many tight games appeared to be catching up with the Leafs, who managed just 10 shots in the first two periods.
“I would have liked to see us get to 3-1,” said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. “There was a couple rebound chances that looked to be pretty good opportunities from the bench. But we didn’t get there and really, going into the third period with a 2-1 lead, we need to find ways to be better in those situations and close out that game regardless of whether we got that third goal or not.”
The tying goal came from the hottest player in the Maple Leafs lineup. Kessel scored for the eighth time in as many games by parking himself at the side of the goal and having Carl Gunnarsson’s point shot deflect in off him at 5:07 of the third period.
“I got a good break tonight,” said Kessel. “It hit my pants.”
The sniper has played an important role in Toronto’s turnaround. Kessel endured a 14-game scoring drought immediately before his current offensive outburst and the team is 5-0-3 since he started scoring again.
“Phil, once he scores a goal it lights him up for awhile,” said Wilson. “I hope it’s for the next six weeks.”
Grabovski’s overtime winner came on a beautiful setup. Dion Phaneuf controlled the puck in the offensive zone during a line change before starting a bang-bang-bang passing play that ended with Kessel finding Grabovski alone in front.
That brought relief for him after missing an earlier breakaway opportunity and having gone six games without scoring.
“It was just a great pass from Phil Kessel,” said Grabovski. “I think for me it was an important goal.”
There remains very little room for error as the Maple Leafs look to earn their first playoff berth since 2004. They would need to finish 13-5-0 to reach 91 points—and even that might not be enough.
However, the team has managed to close the gap significantly with a solid run over the last month. The seventh-place New York Rangers could also be within reach since they are five points ahead and have played one more game.
“Right now we’re worried about our own business,” said Phaneuf. “We’re not looking at the (out of town) scoreboard, praying and hoping for help.”
Added MacArthur: “There’s no room for a bad week and that puts a lot of pressure on our team. We’ll find out what we’re made of.”
Notes:Toronto improved to 3-24-3 this season in games where it trails after two periods …The Penguins have lost 151 man games to injury since Jan. 1 … Maple Leafs forward Jay Rosehill was scratched for the second straight game … Paul Martin and Tyler Kennedy both returned to the Penguins lineup from injury … Pittsburgh was first overall in the Eastern Conference when Sidney Crosby suffered his concussion on Jan. 5. It has gone 11-9-4 since … Announced attendance was 19,473.