Sometimes life comes at you in bursts rather than a steady dribble.
To illustrate: the Toronto Maple Leafs in their 4-3 overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens in what was an eminently winnable game.
In Saturday’s date at the Bell Centre – the two teams separated in the standings by just two points – the Leafs opened the game with zero shots in 14:38.
By the time they got their first – a long slapper from rarely dangerous Jay McClement – they were already down 2-0 to goals from Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty, who had scored within 1:24 of each other.
But then they mustered six shots in a little over 2:30, and scraped back a goal through James van Riemsdyk.
In the third period, the Leafs potted a pair of goals in the span of 2:15 – first van Riemsdyk scooped up an errant pass from Montreal’s Andrei Markov, then pulled away from defenceman P.K. Subban to score his second of the game on a short-handed breakaway.
Then his running mate Phil Kessel sped in unmolested past Douglas Murray and Pacioretty to give Toronto a 3-2 lead.
It’s hard to argue they didn’t deserve it, having bossed the game after snapping out of their first period lethargy, but these two teams couldn’t hold a lead if it had a handle.
So it was the Toronto penalty parade began.
First, defenceman Tim Gleason was whistled for interfering with Montreal’s Brian Gionta, after he picked up a wayward clearing attempt and tried to forage into the Leafs end along the boards.
“(The referee) has to make the call, that’s what I’ve been told,” Gleason said.
The Toronto-born Subban managed to even the score on the subsequent power-play – his first goal in 13 games, followed by a Superman-ripping-his-shirt celebration that will have riled the Leafs – and with the clock winding down the final seconds of regulation, Kessel was shown the gate for clearing the puck over the glass in his own end.
The Leafs killed off the penalty, then, at 3:14 of the extra frame, the truly weird stuff happened.
Goaltender Jonathan Bernier conjured up a pair of remarkable back-to-back saves on Daniel Brière, and with the puck deep in Montreal's end, he shot out of the crease to beat Brière to Subban’s attempted stretch pass.
By the time he covered the puck near the left faceoff dot, Brière was right on top of him, and the referee’s arm was up.
“I’ve never been called for that, ever, I guess. I don’t even know what the rule is, how far you can actually get it and freeze it, it bounced right in front of me, that’s why I didn’t want to take a chance,” Bernier said afterward.
Sadly for the Leafs, rule 63 of the NHL rulebook couldn’t be clearer: “If the goalkeeper races out of his crease in an attempt to beat the attacking player to the puck and instead of playing the puck jumps on the puck causing a stoppage of play, this shall be a minor penalty for delay of game.”
The Habs weren’t about to waste a second opportunity to close out the game on the power play, although they needed a little luck to do so.
Subban’s stick broke as he shot, the puck caromed directly to Andrei Markov, whose instinctive pass to Pacioretty gave the American all the space he need to roof his 29 of the year and second of the night past Bernier.
After it was over, the Leafs were left to lament what might have been – an overtime point is handy, but against a divisional foe two points is essential.
“(The penalties) were all within five or six minutes of each other, I think, so it’s like ‘what the heck’s going on?’ But it’s part of the game. We got a point out of it, but obviously you need to get the two points, and maybe without the penalty I took we could have got the two points,” Gleason said.
Coach Randy Carlyle, who sounded a beleaguered note before the game – the Leafs have been bombarded with lessons on how to play better defence, but “the teacher’s getting tired” – as befits a man whose team is underperforming.
“We had a one-goal lead and we took three straight penalties . . . in that situation, you take the point and move on. Things didn’t go for us the way we would have liked them to have gone in the hockey game but we played a lot better tonight than we did in Long Island,” he said. “We ground, we got a lead, we were down 2-0 and came back from it, we found ways to create offence and I thought that we had the majority of the puck time probably from the second period on. So there were a lot of positives in the game. It’s disappointing that we lost and disappointing that the calls that went against us are ones that are somewhat unusual.”
Carlyle will lament the fact they weren’t able to make up ground on the Habs, who have ridden their luck to five of a possible six points this week, but there’s no benefit to dwelling on it.
“We’re .500 on the road (0-0-2 since the Olympic break), which in this situation isn’t great, we’d have like to have won both hockey games in our minds. But this is the way it goes and we’ll regroup and practice for tomorrow and get ready for Columbus,” he said.
The opening stages of the game were a choppy, intermittent mess – nine whistles in the first three minutes – but there was one signal moment that looked like foreshadowing of a rambunctious, hard-fought contest: David Clarskon rammed Subban into the boards on the second shift of the game.
It was, although it would take until the third period for it to be apparent to those who stuck it out through a turgid second period.
After a slow start, the Habs started dominating possession – a rarity of late – and duly got on the board after a shift where they buzzed around the Toronto end for the better part of a minute.
Subban shimmied around Joffrey Lupul – all he could do was fall to the ice – to keep the puck in the Toronto end, three passes later Alex Galchenyuk’s spinorama forehand from the slot ticked off Morgan Rielly’s stick and past Bernier’s blocker.
Moments later the Habs were up 2-0.
Again it was the result of sustained pressure – this time involving some sharp interplay between Subban and David Desharnais – and this time it was Pacioretty’s turn to send a spinning shot (a backhand) past a screened Bernier.
The goal seemed to wake up the Maple Leafs, who contrived to go 14:38 before logging their first official shot on goal.
That it came from McClement and not from big guns like Phil Kessel or van Riemsdyk speaks volumes.
Once the seal was broken, however, the Leafs started peppering Peter Budaj in the Montreal net, firing six shots in just over two-and-a-half minutes.
One of them, a nifty tip by van Riemsdyk at the side of the net, slithered through Budaj’s legs.
If the Slovak netminder, filling in for the injured Carey Price, wasn’t at his sharpest on the sequence, he more than made up for it in the third period (the less said about the turgid second, the better).
With the Leafs on an early power play – Brière having been whistled for goaltender interference – van Riesmdyk made a sweet between-the-legs back-door feed to Kessel, but Budaj stuck out his right pad to take away a sure goal.
It was one of many wide-open chances for Kessel on the night, he whiffed on at least two opportunities with the net gaping.
The Leafs would tie the game 5:28 minutes into the final period when Markov sent a diagonal pass to no one in particular and van Riemsdyk outraced Subban to slip a shot between Budaj’s legs.
Just over two minutes later, Kessel scooped up a puck in the neutral zone and skipped around Murray, firing a perfect wrister just inside Budaj’s right post.
“I don’t know if it was Bozak or Lupul who made a spinorama, around-the-back pass that went through maybe two skates, maybe a couple of sticks and ends up right on Kessel’s stick for a breakaway,” Pacioretty said. “I’m right there with Kessel but I don’t really see the puck coming until the last second . . . it’s just the way things were going for us then.”
So he didn’t anticipate the behind-the-back pass through a thicket of skates and sticks?
“Through the neutral zone? No. I don’t think that’s something they practice too often,” smiled Pacioretty, a U.S. Olympic teammate of Kessel and van Riemsdyk (he has known the latter since childhood).
In fairness, the goal was coming – between Pacioretty’s goal and Kessel’s go-ahead marker, the Leafs fired 21 shots at the Montreal net.
Afterward, Montreal coach Michel Therrien called a timeout.
“The bench was really down after the third goal so I just wanted to tell them there’s still a lot of hockey to play,” he said.
Pacioretty credited the tactic – and Therrien’s generally positive outlook of late – with lifting the team’s spirits.
“(Therrien) has been so positive with us lately, whether it be when we’re struggling – we were struggling there tonight too – when you see your coach motivating you and being positive like that, everyone got the message right away. It showed in our game, and he’s really found a way to get this group to rally together and tonight was a good example of that,” he said.
The lead was indeed short-lived, after an ill-advised diagonal clear-in bounced to Gionta, the referee’s arm went up when Gleason rubbed the dimunitive Habs winger out along the boards.
Subban was subsequently allowed to fire a trio of his trademark heavy slapshots at Bernier, the last of which caromed in off the goaltender.
Afterward, the recent Canadian Olympian – who was benched on Thursday in Pittsburgh after making a costly turnover that lead to a goal – mostly expressed relief.
“I’m still trying to get my timing back after the break. I kinda feel like I’m skating in quicksand,” he said.
With 30.7 seconds to play in regulation, Kessel flipped a clearing attempt over the glass, although the lapse wouldn’t prove fatal..
The Habs wouldn’t squander a second chance at the man-advantage.
Budaj, meanwhile, is 2-0-1 in relief of Price, who will be on the Habs’ upcoming four-game Western swing.
“Sure I want to shine,” Budaj said, “but you play for the logo on the front, not the name on the back.”