TORONTO – If Ron Wilson gets his way, the Toronto Maple Leafs will eventually stop taking part in such entertaining hockey games.
After watching his team go through a volatile stretch of highs and lows over the last week, the Maple Leafs coach is intent on tightening things up. The latest emotional roller-coaster was a 5-4 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday in which Toronto twice erased three-goal deficits but couldn’t quite finish off the Hurricanes.
Niclas Wallin scored the overtime winner but the game probably wouldn’t have needed extra time had the Leafs not allowed four goals during a sloppy first period.
“We’ve got to hammer it home,” said Wilson. “We’ve changed our focus a little bit – we thought we had (defence) in the can and have gone more into the attack mode, more shots and focused on offence. We just have to hammer (defence) home.
“That’s what we’ll do tomorrow.”
Interestingly, the team’s recent focus on offence has yielded surprising results. Many had them pegged as a group that wouldn’t score very much this season but the Leafs have challenged that notion by racking up 18 goals over the past four games.
That they only have two wins to show for the recent surge only illustrates Wilson’s point about the need for better defensive play.
The biggest problem has been Toronto’s tendency to fall behind early. They’ve trailed by at least two goals in six of the past eight games and will obviously be looking to reverse that trend starting in Boston on Thursday night.
“We don’t want to get behind,” said defenceman Jeff Finger. “It’s going to save us a lot of energy at the end of the year and obviously some points too.”
There was definitely a second point to be had against the Hurricanes. With the game tied 4-4 in the third period, Toronto had a 5-on-3 power play for one minute 13 seconds and couldn’t beat Cam Ward one final time.
The Carolina goalie managed a nice save on Nik Antropov during the power play, but Wilson doesn’t think his players took enough advantage of the extra space to pass the puck around and create quality chances.
“We should have won the game with the 5-on-3,” said Wilson. “We’re going to have to work on this. I just see a selfish attempt at trying to single-handedly score the goal on a 5-on-3.
“We have to move the puck and be patient. And we’re not.”
His counterpart also saw that as a key moment in the game.
The Maple Leafs outshot Carolina 27-10 over the final two periods and overtime, but appeared to stall a little after failing to score with the two-man advantage.
“It did give us energy,” said Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette, who tied John Tortorella for all-time wins by a U.S.-born coach with 239. “I thought after that, a little bit of the momentum left them. Not that we turned it on that much, but it became pretty even at that point.
“No team really dominated from that point on, so we did grab some momentum and settled things down with that kill.”
Wallin’s winner came 1:52 into overtime on a shot that went through a crowd and past screened Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala. Tuomo Ruutu, Dennis Seidenberg, Chad LaRose and Ryan Bayda also had goals for Carolina (7-3-2).
Mikhail Grabovski, with two, Niklas Hagman, Mike Van Ryn replied for the Leafs (5-4-4).
There were 10 goals scored when the teams faced each other in Raleigh on Sunday, so it wasn’t all that surprising to see the offence carry over to the second half of the back-to-back series.
The Hurricanes grabbed a 3-0 lead before the first period was half over.
Ruutu beat fellow Finn Vesa Toskala with a low shot at 2:20, Seidenberg wristed one through the Leafs goalie’s legs on a power play at 5:06 and LaRose scored his fourth of the season at 8:53 after the puck bounced out from the end boards.
Hagman and Bayda exchanged goals before the horn sounded as Carolina took a 4-1 lead to the dressing room after 20 minutes in front of a restless Air Canada Centre crowd.
“We let them off too easy in the first period,” said Hagman. “We didn’t play as hard as we should have.”
The comeback started in the second period thanks to the line of Hagman, Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin – easily Toronto’s best unit on this night.
They did a great job of creating pressure on the forecheck before Grabovski made it 4-2 at 3:40 by cashing in a cross-crease pass from Hagman on a power play.
Toronto inched closer when Van Ryn scored at 14:32 and the game was there for the taking after Grabovski tied it at 1:29 of the third period. That was the fourth goal in two games for the flashy Belarussian.
“Every game I feel comfortable because the coach gave me ice time and I have a great line,” said the 24-year-old Grabovski.
It was yet another exciting comeback for the Maple Leafs but they were ultimately left with a bitter taste when the Hurricanes won in overtime.
Even for a team with low expectations, there are no moral victories.
“We dug ourselves a hole in the first (period) and it was too big to get out of almost,” said Finger. “We salvaged a point but I think everybody agrees that that’s not good enough in the first.
“It pretty much cost us two points.”
Notes: Toronto’s Ian White dressed for the second straight game after being a scratch in the first 11… Carlo Colaiacovo, Jonas Frogren and Ryan Hollweg sat out for the Leafs … Toronto has outshot its opponents in nine straight games … The Hurricanes have serious injury problems: Matt Cullen (leg), Brandon Sutter (concussion), Joni Pitkanen (knee), Frantisek Kaberle (leg) and Justin Williams (Achilles tendon) are all currently on the shelf … Finger played his 100th career NHL game … Announced attendance was 19,266.