The typically emotionless captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs was quiet and sullen, his face that of a man attending a funeral.
Only the fellow those gathered around had come to bury was Dion Phaneuf.
“It’s a bad mistake at a bad time to make it,” he said softly, explaining to the media what happened on an unthinkable play that cost his team a game and likely a series against the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night. “I take responsibility for it. It’s unacceptable.”
What had happened wasn’t exactly entirely out of character, at least in terms of the Phaneuf many around the league came to know early in his career.
He pinched to make a risky play, leaning into an unnecessary hit with no one but a slow-footed defence partner covering for him, and watched helplessly as Bruins centre David Krejci – the NHL playoffs leading scorer with 10 points in four games – buried a hat trick goal to give his team a 4-3 overtime win and a 3-1 series lead.
Phaneuf, who had logged a team-high 31 minutes and struggled to contain a veteran Boston team much of the night, was almost solely to blame, caught way out of position in a decision reminiscent mostly of when he was a younger, inferior player.
The play overshadowed a terrific game by many of his teammates, as the Leafs had taken an early 2-0 lead in the first and battled back to tie the game late in the second to setup a thrilling extra 13 minutes of end-to-end action.
In what will likely be this series’ defining game, the Leafs young legs showed they could play with the Bruins, and they were left lamenting that a Matt Frattin shot had hit the post in overtime rather than gone in, a miss by an inch that could have sent them to Boston for Friday’s Game 5 tied and pushing to win.
Instead, Phaneuf was the goat of all goats, and his coach could only muse on what could have been.
“I've been in this game a long time,” Carlyle said, sounding much like an offensive defenceman caught on the wrong end of similar plays in his own playing career. “It’s one bounce, one shot, one rebound, one deflection, one fluky bounce… it’s all the ones that go against you.
“You can't afford to make mistakes that lead to odd-man rushes, and we turned the puck over deep in the corner and then we pinched and that led to an odd-man rush and they scored a short-side goal to beat us.
“That kind of feels like a dagger after the effort that was put forth by our group.”
Yes, NHL coaches often offer a similar refrain, but in this case, it was wholly, undoubtedly true. A Leafs team that entered this series way overmatched in experience and talent was right there, skating stride for stride with the Bruins throughout the 73-minutes of back-and-forth action.
Ultimately, Boston deserved the win if only because they were a little tighter defensively and their netminder, Tuukka Rask, was calmer and more collected than Toronto’s James Reimer, but this was hardly an overwhelming victory.
The score – and the situation, with the game deep in overtime and a crowd (and city) not familiar to these situations perched on the edge of their seats – was appropriate for what unfolded on the ice.
“It hurts,” said Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul, who opened the game’s scoring two minutes in and assisted on the 2-0 goal late in a great first period for Toronto. “But such is playoff hockey. It would have felt great if one of those posts or one of those big saves goes in for us. Instead it hurts.”
Not that there weren’t other issues with the Leafs game. Beyond Phaneuf’s gaffe, they also blew that early two-goal lead in fairly short order, giving Boston far too many chances in the second period for the second game in a row.
Down by two for the first time that early in a game, the Bruins came out possessed in the middle frame, with Patrice Bergeron scoring on the power play 32 seconds in and Krejci adding a pair of goals four minutes apart later in the period.
But down 3-2, the Leafs didn’t wilt. In a game filled with more speed and skill far than brute strength, Toronto held its own at least in part because Carlyle had wisely iced his best lineup of the series.
That included Clarke MacArthur – back in after two games as a healthy scratch – who stepped up big by stepping into and blasting the tying goal in a mere 44 seconds after Krejci had put the Bruins ahead.
It also included young defenceman Jake Gardiner, who was absolutely brilliant in nearly 28 minutes of ice time, some of which came in part due to teammate Mark Fraser taking a puck off the forehead and having to leave the game with undisclosed trauma.
(Meanwhile, both assists on MacArthur’s pivotal goal – from Gardiner and Frattin – came from two young players who have sat out plenty of games down the stretch and in this series, curious decisions that add a bit of “what if?” to some of the Leafs losses in the last month or so.)
That all led into a third period and overtime that was long on its own drama – including a four-minute penalty kill after Nazem Kadri highsticked a Bruin in the face in his limited ice time – with 25 shots from a pumped up home side and great plays made at both ends of the rink.
At one point, the Air Canada Centre crowd stood and cheered, not for a goal or big play but, simply, it seemed, because the Leafs were not only back in the playoffs but pushing Boston as hard as they had in years.
For a fan base that had had so little to cheer about, that was enough.
That it ended as it did – with Phaneuf re-enacting a terrible play from his nearly forgotten days as a risk-taking member of the Calgary Flames – was difficult for all involved to take.
And no one looked or sounded more defeated than the 28-year-old captain who had let his team down.
“I don’t know what more you want me to say – I made a bad play, and it cost us the game,” Phaneuf said. “It’s a split second decision. It’s a fast game, and the guy chipped it by. It’s a costly decision.”
While the odds are now even longer that the Leafs can come back in the series, both the coach and his players insisted that they would draw encouragement from coming so close.
If it was a game of inches once, they reasoned, it very well could be again two days later.
“That’s the way the playoffs are played,” Carlyle said. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be played, and we just have to find a way to bottle everything, the positives that we put forth, and bring that for Friday in Boston.”
“The series isn’t over,” Lupul added.
Fraser suffers head injury
The game’s scariest moment, meanwhile, was when big Leafs defenceman Mark Fraser was hit in the forehead by a Milan Lucic shot in the third period and had to be helped off the ice.
Carlyle was only able to offer a brief update on his condition, but other players noted Fraser had been able to walk under his own power after the injury.
“He’s gone to the hospital for a CT scan,” Carlyle said. “They are going to check for any broken bones in the forehead area… Obviously he’s going to need some stitches, and there’s a plastic surgeon ready to do that. They are going to have to do a scan on him first to make sure he doesn’t have any fractures in his face.”
“The guy’s been an absolute warrior and a great teammate,” Lupul said. “Our thoughts are with him.”