TORONTO - Jonathan Bernier came back to try and help end a losing streak. By the time the goaltender and the Toronto Maple Leafs left Air Canada Centre, they were out of a playoff spot.
Bernier returned from a five-game absence and did his best to keep the Leafs in it against the St. Louis Blues. But a plethora of other mistakes against one of the NHL's top teams Tuesday night ultimately resulted in a 5-3 defeat, their sixth in a row.
"It's a hard league," Blues goaltender Ryan Miller said of the Leafs' struggles. "You've got to keep it all together."
Things have seemingly fallen apart in just under two weeks' time.
The loss, coupled with the Blue Jackets beating the Red Wings and the Capitals picking up a point against the Los Angeles Kings, dropped the Leafs out of a wild-card position. Though all four teams have 80 points, Columbus and Detroit held the wild-card spots at the end of the night, ahead of the Capitals and then the Leafs because of games played.
Not long ago Toronto was second in the Atlantic Division, and now it looks like the season is slipping away.
"Certainly we're afraid of letting it slip away," said winger Joffrey Lupul, whose early goal was the first time Toronto opened the scoring in eight games. "The whole year we've thought we were a playoff team, and we still believe that now. ... There's reason for concern, but it's not completely time to panic. We're still right there."
Winger James van Riemsdyk, whose goal at 15:54 of the third period cut the Leafs' deficit to a goal, said that the team has "100 per cent" faith that things can turn around with just eight games remaining.
"We have a lot of confidence in our abilities and a belief in ourselves and believe in the guys in the room," van Riemsdyk said. "This thing is obviously far from over."
At some point the Leafs (36-30-8) must show that instead of just talking about it. They were unable to do that against the Blues, who passed the Boston Bruins for the top spot in the league thanks to a hat trick from David Backes and one goal apiece from T.J. Oshie and former Leafs forward Alex Steen.
Though Bernier allowed four goals, his return from a groin injury was more memorable for some of the big saves he made among his 44. The 25-year-old No. 1 goalie gave his team a chance, but too much continued to go wrong in front of and around the net.
Lupul said a good team is supposed to bail its goalie out and vice-versa. That didn't happen for James Reimer in the first five games of this slide, and that continued with Bernier.
"When you get in a slide like this it's easy to start pin-pointing individuals, which is fair, but as a group we look at it like, if there's a mistake made by someone, someone else steps up and makes a play for them," Lupul said. "And we just haven't been doing quite enough of that right now."
Captain Dion Phaneuf hesitated twice to clear the puck on a late-first-period penalty kill before the Blues forced a turnover and scored, then was beaten by Steen in front of the net on the fourth goal St. Louis scored. Phaneuf was not made available to speak to reporters, leaving coach Randy Carlyle to answer for some of the defenceman's poor play.
"He and (Cody) Franson have been the top pairing on our blue line, as far as the offensive side of it, all year," Carlyle said. "In tonight's situation, he had a rough night."
Phaneuf could be blamed for at least two goals against, but he wasn't alone in having a rough night against the Blues (49-16-7), who showed early and often why they're a Stanley Cup contender.
"It was a 5-3 game where I think we could've scored 10 goals tonight," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said in a nod to Bernier. "We had so many scoring opportunities, and I thought for the most part until we got careless and started to get fancy around the net instead of burying it that we were really playing one of our top games."
During the first period, St. Louis hemmed the Leafs in their own end, putting 23 shots on net, a season high for Toronto.
"I don't know," Lupul said. "We couldn't break their cycle, we couldn't get the puck."
Had the Leafs managed to go into the first intermission tied 1-1, as Carlyle pointed out, they would have been fortunate. But Phaneuf's mistake led to a power-play goal by Backes with 32.3 seconds left.
Backes had to beat Bernier, too, but he did that twice and added an empty netter for his second career hat trick.
"There's something about this barn and this stage," Backes said. "There's obviously a special thing about being in Toronto. The buzz in the air and everyone's talking about the Leafs. Every establishment's got a neon Leafs sign of some sort. This is kind of the Mecca for hockey here in Toronto."
Hockey Mecca includes many more people panicking even after the Leafs lost to a much better team in the Blues. Van Riemsdyk repeatedly pointed out that the Blues are "a heck of a hockey team."
There's no disputing that, only that the Leafs couldn't find a way to end their skid. Bernier knows nothing should have to be said after this one.
"If we're missing motivation, at this time of the year everyone should have some," he said. "Obviously we knew it was not going to be easy. That's a good team out there—they're first and they showed it tonight."
The Leafs showed something in trimming a three-goal deficit to one in the third period. And while that's the biggest thing they'll take from Tuesday night, it's not nearly enough with the frustration building up.
"You've got to try and manage that," van Riemsdyk said. "If you play in a frustrated type of way you're no good out there. We've got to continue to learn from things and look at the positives and kind of go from there."
One positive Lupul sees is two games ahead at the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday night and then back home against the Red Wings on Saturday night.
"You win those two games, all of a sudden things look a lot different," he said.
Until the Leafs manage to do that, things look bleak.
NOTES—With Bernier back, the Leafs sent goaltender Drew MacIntyre back to the AHL's Toronto Marlies. ... Defenceman Paul Ranger was scratched for the third straight game with a neck injury.
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