What gives? The answer is in the effort. “I liked that game a hell of a lot more than I liked the Islander game,” Maurice said after his team’s 7-4 loss to the Sabres on Wednesday. “Just for what we’re all here to do – get down, compete, come back. A little life out there, a little jump.
“Listen, we’re playing one of the best teams in the NHL. I thought it was a really exciting game.”
The coach was in a much better mood than after Monday’s 4-2 victory at home over the Islanders, when Maurice lambasted his team for their sloppiness and inability to put away the visitors early.
His message clearly got through ahead of this one as the Leafs showed all kinds of spark, particularly after going down 4-2 midway through the penalty-filled game.
A goal by Jeff O’Neill in the second period and by Darcy Tucker in the third got Toronto back to 4-4 and the Leafs looked like they might even steal a win from the NHL’s best team.
“It looked like we got the game back,” said forward Alexei Ponikarovsky. “We were creating more chances in front of their net until that bad bounce made it 5-4.”
Forgive him for the politeness. The “bad bounce” was actually a bad giveaway by goaltender Andrew Raycroft and the Leafs No. 1 man didn’t shy away from it afterwards.
Raycroft was trying to get the puck up the boards late in the third period when Buffalo’s Jason Pominville intercepted it. Moments later it was on the stick of Daniel Briere and in the back of the Leafs net, giving Buffalo a 5-4 lead with 5:19 to play.
“I didn’t make the best decision obviously,” said Raycroft, who had won six straight starts. “Bad timing, but that’s why we play hockey.
“It’s a game of mistakes.”
Toronto again pushed for the tie but Ryan Miller came up with a series of big saves. Tucker, Bryan McCabe and Michael Peca all forced the Sabres netminder to be sharp before his team scored twice into an empty net.
Even though the game was ultimately decided on Raycroft’s miscue, his teammates were happy with their goalie’s effort.
“You don’t like to see that happen to anybody, especially the guy who battled and gave us every opportunity to stay in there,” said Peca. “He gave us that chance and we nearly took it.”
The only thing that took away from an otherwise exciting game featuring two fast-skating teams was the frequent interruptions by referees Brad Meier and Dean Morton.
The pair called 18 minor penalties and left both coaches wondering if the league had decided to implement yet another crackdown.
“I don’t know what standards were out there,” said Maurice. “I know all you guys have seen a gazillion games. I don’t need to tell you what you saw. So feel free to speak your mind.
“I lost five pounds barking.”
The only consolation might have been that each team scored two power-play goals and the game wasn’t decided after a questionable call.
Still, the endless whistles were still ringing in the ears of some Maple Leafs as they thought about the game in the dressing room afterwards.
McCabe took two penalties, including one in the second period that led to a power-play goal by Briere.
“We battled a lot of adversity tonight I can tell you that,” the defenceman said afterwards. “If that call on me in the second period is a penalty, every defenceman in the league should retire.
“All I did was lift his stick.”