TORONTO – The work-in-progress Toronto Maple Leafs took a big step backwards Tuesday night after two weeks of steady gains, following up one of their best performances of the season with one of their worst.
A 5-2 loss to the bland-as-ever Minnesota Wild stemmed all the momentum created by Saturday’s impressive 5-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings and a run of points in seven straight games.
Mikko Koivu took control of a contest there for the taking with a goal and two assists in the decisive second period, leaving the Maple Leafs wondering why they had played so passively against a team they should be able to beat.
“We seem to struggle when it’s not a Saturday night game at home. Emotionally we came out a little flat, we were just content to move along,” lamented Leafs head coach Ron Wilson.
“We’re not good enough to get full of ourselves after we’ve had a couple of good weeks. I was a little disappointed in our approach, but more teaching tools for me.”
There were plenty lessons to be learned from their poor second period, in which the Maple Leafs “kind of fell apart there for 15 minutes” in the words of forward John Mitchell.
Marek Zidlicky broke a 1-1 tie at 5:44, and 26 seconds after Koivu beat Jonas Gustavsson at 17:29, Greg Zanon made it a three-goal advantage. The first goal was the result of a disputed two-man advantage, the other when the Wild won battles deep in the Toronto end.
Down 4-1 heading into the third period against the tremendous Niklas Backstrom, it was lights out.
“It’s not acceptable and we know that in this dressing room,” said Maple Leafs forward Matt Stajan. “We didn’t play a full 60 minutes and at times we looked really flat. We can’t play like that in our own building. We’ve got to learn from this because these are costly points. Just as we’re starting to creep back in past a few teams, it would have been a big two points for us.”
Backstrom made 37 saves for the Wild (7-10-0), who also got goals from Martin Havlat and Owen Nolan, into an empty net, to win for the fourth time in five games. Minnesota won in Toronto for the first time (1-4-0) since joining the NHL in 2000-01.
Alexei Ponikarovsky and Phil Kessel replied for the Maple Leafs (3-8-5) before a hushed crowd of 19,063. Compounding matters, defenceman Mike Komisarek left the game with a leg injury after taking just six shifts for 2:47 of ice-time.
Trying to give his team a spark midway through the second, Wilson moved Stajan from the fourth line to the first with Kessel and Mitchell. Kessel ripped a shot off the post on a power play soon after, but that was close as that trio would get.
Stajan was back between Colton Orr and Wayne Primeau to start the third while Jason Blake returned to the top unit, which aside from the odd inspired shift managed little, aside from Kessel’s breakaway strike at 18:05.
The Wild took two penalties in quick succession after that, setting up a three-man advantage for the Leafs once they pulled Gustavsson, but Backstrom shut the door until Nolan’s empty-netter with three seconds left iced it.
“You don’t see that too often,” Backstrom, who earned his 100th career win, said of the 6-on-3. “You can’t worry too, much, try to enjoy it. … I think our three did a good job there.”
The Wild decided it in the second period.
Given a two-man advantage when Ponikarovsky accidentally flipped the puck over the glass for a delay of game call, Zidlicky broke a 1-1 tie when his slapshot from the point squeezed between Gustavsson and the post.
They extended that lead to 3-1 at 17:29, taking advantage of an exhausted Leafs unit left on the ice following an icing call. Antti Mitettinen forced a turnover in the corner after the draw and sent a pretty pass in front to Koivu, who tipped it past Gustavsson.
Another 26 seconds after that, Zanon’s point shot hits a couple of Toronto sticks in front to fly past Gustavsson.
“We were an opportunistic group tonight,” said Wild coach Todd Richards. “You get on the power play, especially a 5-on-3, you have to score and we were able to score.”
Havlat opened the scoring at 17:42 of the first period when he slipped puck into crease on a wraparound and it went in off Gustavsson’s skate.
Minnesota’s lead lasted just 26 seconds, as Ponikarovsky whipped a shot from the side of the net through Backstrom to knot things up 1-1.
“We made some bad decisions with the puck and without it,” said Leafs defenceman Francois Beauchemin. “It came back to haunt us.”
Notes: The night began with a poignant Remembrance Day ceremony featuring five Canadian veterans brought to centre ice and Hall of Famer Johnny Bower reading John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” … Forwards Jamal Mayers and Jay Rosehill, along with defenceman Garnet Exelby were healthy scratches for the Maple Leafs. … Wild forward Petr Sykora is out indefinitely after suffering a concussion Saturday night versus Dallas. Defenceman John Scott was Minnesota’s other scratch. … Komisarek is in his first season with the Maple Leafs after signing a US$22.5-million, five-year deal.