They may not be the New Jersey Devils of old, but you still don’t want to spot them a two-goal lead.
Even with a 39-year-old Martin Brodeur in goal.
But the Toronto Maple Leafs did just that, before rallying, forcing overtime and ultimately losing 3-2 Tuesday night in the extra frame when David Clarkson capped a big night by putting the winner past James Reimer.
And without question, an ugly start was what hurt Toronto the most.
“We weren’t ready to start the game," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. "We just didn’t have our legs or our minds into it. New Jersey was sharp, ready and they took advantage of us.”
In fairness to the Leafs, they had won a night earlier in impressive fashion in New York, recovering from a couple Boston beat downs to topple a red-hot Rangers team at MSG.
That said, Toronto has 17 sets of two games in two nights this season -- tied for second-most in the league -- and has now gone 1-3-1 in the second game of their first five.
Playoff teams find ways to often pull out two points in those situations, and the Leafs have 12 more chances to start showing more jump early in games after those troublesome overnight flights.
Ilya Kovalchuk and Clarkson did the honours in giving the Devils that early 2-0 lead, taking advantage of some undisciplined play by the Leafs to score on their first two power plays in the first 10 minutes.
"Once they got up 2-0, they pretty much stopped playing offence," Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul said.
Phil Kessel then put Toronto to within one in the second in one of the uglier of his 17 markers on the year, deflecting a puck in with his skate to move back into a tie with Jonathan Toews for the NHL’s goal scoring lead.
Leafs rookie Matt Frattin made it 2-2 two minutes into the third on a nice individual effort, capping a remarkable Toronto push that saw them lead 26-14 on the shot clock over the final 40 minutes of regulation.
"That third period was his best period so far this year," Wilson said of Frattin. "He was a force the whole time he was on the ice. He needs to play like that more consistently if he wants to stay."
It was a wildly entertaining finish, mostly due to Toronto putting on the gas, but in the end, the opening 10 minutes did them in.
"Our penalty kill wasn't sharp off the start, couple brain cramps, we got behind the 8-ball," defenceman Luke Schenn said. "But we worked the whole night and I think we left everything we had on the ice.
"Every team's so equal in this league and teams are so well prepared, but you've got to find ways every night to get the job done."
The Leafs penalty kill had crawled all the way to 27th place in the NHL in recent days, an improvement over where it’d been earlier in the year (and much of Wilson's tenure in Toronto).
Tuesday, however, it nearly cost them the game.
Toronto gave the Devils, owners of one of the worst power plays in the league, three chances in the first period alone and were beaten twice in the game’s first nine minutes.
New Jersey’s second goal was the ugliest, with Leafs blueliners Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson out to lunch and Reimer left to fend for himself with Clarkson all on his own in front.
After the game, Wilson was miffed his team didn't get more than the two power play chances after four calls against his team early on.
"Sometimes you can't control what the referees decide," Wilson said. "Is it objective or subjective? Cause you can then flip to the last 10 minutes of the game and say 'Why aren't we getting the same calls that they got in the first 10 minutes of the game?' "
The game was Reimer’s first at home since a win over the Winnipeg Jets way back on Oct. 19, and he was solid throughout -- making his best save early on a point blank shot from Clarkson on the power play.
Reimer missed 19 games with a head injury before returning on Saturday in a 4-1 loss in Boston, a game in which he looked a little rusty after six weeks off.
There was none of that evident Tuesday -- a welcome sign, even if backup Jonas Gustavsson has suddenly looked remarkably strong during his own 5-1-0 run.
"I feel like I'm closer and closer to getting back in that groove," Reimer said. "With every game that I play since coming back, I feel I'm getting better. The way the trend's going, I'll only let in two the next time."
"He played well," Wilson said. "He made some big saves when we needed them when we got sloppy."
"We're definitely happy to have him back," Schenn added.
The injury ward
Missing from action was Leafs winger Clarke MacArthur, who played 15 minutes a night earlier but was announced as a late scratch Tuesday with an upper-body injury.
"I'm hoping it's only a game or two," Wilson said.
Toronto then dodged a bullet late in the second period after Joffrey Lupul took what looked like a knee-on-knee hit from Dainius Zubrus and went off gingerly.
Lupul, however, was back on the ice for the third -- a good thing given he’s been the team’s hottest player in reeling off 21 points in the last 17 games.
He had a slight limp in the dressing room after the game (and didn't seem all that happy) but said he felt fine.
The Leafs may get good news on the injury front elsewhere for their next game, Friday in Washington, as Colby Armstrong is almost ready to return from a high ankle sprain.
"There's a really good chance," Wilson said of Armstrong being able to play. "We'll see how he practises on Thursday."