TORONTO - The Toronto Maple Leafs have spent the last month desperately chasing a playoff spot. They found out Saturday what kind of hockey they'll need to play if they get there.
Jonathan Toews extended his points streak to nine games with a goal as the lightning quick Chicago Blackhawks hammered the Maple Leafs 5-3.
The defending Stanley Cup champions imposed their will on a streaking Toronto team, particularly during a dominant first period where they took a 3-0 lead and showed no signs of rust while playing for the second time in as many nights. It was the eighth straight win for the Blackhawks.
"We were quick to find out why they're the Stanley Cup champions," said Leafs forward Tim Brent. "They capitalized on every mistake we made. We just kind of got away from what we've been doing so well lately ... and it came back to haunt us."
The Maple Leafs were fresh off a victory over East-leading Philadelphia—the team Chicago beat in last year's final—and had earned at least a point in nine straight games. However, they were never able to overcome the shaky start and remain four points back of eighth-place Carolina.
"It's good experience for our team to play one of the better teams in the league right now and see what we have to do to get better," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson.
Marian Hossa, Michael Frolik, Viktor Stalberg and Bryan Bickell also had goals for the Blackhawks (37-23-6).
Joffrey Lupul, Joey Crabb and Luke Schenn replied for Toronto (29-28-9), which fell to 10-3-4 since the all-star break.
With Toronto chasing its first playoff berth since 2004, the fans were amped up at Air Canada Centre—at least for the opening minute. Shortly after, Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson turned the puck over to Hossa, who beat James Reimer for his 18th goal of the season at 1:10.
"We had a horrific giveaway right at the wrong time," said Wilson. "That energized them and deflated us a bit. They took advantage like good teams do."
The Blackhawks kept on coming, extending their lead to 3-0 when Frolik finished off a 2-on-1 at 4:13 and Toews converted a beautiful Patrick Kane pass at 15:37. The Blackhawks captain has eight goals and 15 points during his nine-game run and has started to generate some MVP talk around the league.
As much as anything, the start of the game provided a pretty good of example why Chicago's chances of repeating their championship this spring can't be discounted. The team seems to be hitting its stride after enduring some early struggles.
"We have an expectation to win and get the two points and I think it's showing in the way we're starting games," said defenceman Duncan Keith.
Added coach Joel Quenneville: "I thought we had a great start—it's nice to see all four lines, everybody contributing."
On the flip side, it was a stunning opening period for a Leafs team that had played nine straight one-goal games.
"I don't know if there's a reason (for it)," said Reimer. "I honestly don't think we were nervous. I mean, I wasn't nervous and the energy in the room was the same as any other night. If anything, we were excited to play the Stanley Cup champions."
Lupul briefly restored some hope for the home fans by intercepting a pass at his own blue-line and beating Corey Crawford high at 7:28, but Stalberg and Bickell scored before the intermission to bring an early end to Reimer's night.
He was replaced by J.S. Giguere to start the third period after allowing five goals on 19 shots. Reimer was tagged with his first regulation loss since Feb. 5.
The Leafs pushed hard to get back in the game in the final 20 minutes.
After Crabb scored at 4:26 on a play where the puck took a couple strange bounces, Mikhail Grabovski was hauled down on a breakaway. He made a nice deke that was denied by Crawford, who followed that up with a nice breakaway save on Mike Brown.
"(Crawford) was great in the third period, made a great save on the penalty shot," said Quenneville.
The margin for error is just a little bit smaller for the Leafs. With 16 games remaining in the regular season, they need to finish 11-5-0 to reach 89 points—and there's no guarantee that will be enough to lock up the eighth seed.
However, there was no sense of panic after dropping a game to one of the NHL's hottest teams.
"It would be awful idiotic to say that we were going to win every game the rest of the way," said Wilson. "So I have no problem with the game tonight. We'll move on to the next one, learn our lessons and get better."
Notes:Stalberg began his NHL career in Toronto before getting traded last summer ... It was Reimer's 12th appearance in the last 13 games ... Maple Leafs forward Jay Rosehill was a healthy scratch for the fourth straight game ... The Blackhawks donated one of their 2010 Stanley Cup rings to the Hockey Hall of Fame on Saturday afternoon ... Announced attendance was 19,646.