This script is getting way too familiar for the Toronto Maple Leafs – finally get an advantage and then watch it slip away thanks to bad defensive play and an atrocious penalty-killing unit.
The killing blow came with a power-play goal by Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal on Thursday night when he scored with 1 minute 51 seconds left in overtime to hand the Leafs a 4-3 loss, their second in as many games on this road trip. That leaves the Leafs 0-1-1 since head coach Ron Wilson announced his contract extension on Christmas morning.
Another, more serious sign was that the game was the seventh in the 10 games since Leaf goaltender James Reimer returned from his head injury in which he has allowed three or more goals.
The Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes saved their entertaining hockey for the third period and overtime after putting the 17,461 fans at the RBC Center to sleep in the first 40 minutes. But the Leafs blew a 3-1 lead in the third to let the Hurricanes come back and win.
Staal did most of the damage, scoring on a breakaway midway through the third period to start a Hurricanes comeback and then getting the winner on a one-time shot in overtime.
Before Staal brought the RBC Center to life, the Leafs broke open a 1-1 tie with goals from Nikolai Kulemin and Joffrey Lupul less than three minutes apart in the third period. But 30 seconds after Lupul scored to make it 3-1 for the Leafs, Staal capitalized on a breakaway when Leaf defenceman Keith Aulie let the puck get by him at the Hurricanes blueline. Zac Dalpe tied the score two minutes after Staal’s first goal to force overtime.
“When you fight back and then get three unanswered goals, it’s tough,” said leafs defenceman Luke Schenn. “There were a few too many mistakes and we gave up too many odd-man rushes in the third period. It ended up biting us.
“Obviously, we’ve got to be more aware who’s around you on the ice. Staal was always there. Guys like that will burn you.”
Reimer, who was looking to atone for a bad game on Tuesday, got off to a bad start. He was caught down on his knees waving at an ordinary wrist shot by Brandon Sutter that gave the Hurricanes a 1-0 lead at 4:15.
Both teams walked through the rest of the period and then Leafs winger Nazem Kadri scored early in the second to tie the score. After that, everyone went back to sleep.
However, the pace picked up in the third period and Kulemin scored a rare goal to put the Leafs in front 2-1.
That set off the string of goals over the next several minutes but the Leafs could not stay in front.
“We just had a little collapse for the last 10 minutes,” Boyce said. “We’ve got to clear that up.”
Both teams had chances to win it in regulation time. But the Leafs could not score on a late power play and Reimer stopped Staal when he elected to hang on to the puck and shoot on a three-on-one rush as the Hurricanes penalty ended.
The game saw another strong outing for Kadri. He has made himself a fixture at right wing beside centre Tim Connolly and left winger Clarke MacArthur. Early in the second period, Kadri scored his third goal in four games since being promoted from the Leafs’ Toronto Marlies farm team with a wraparound shot on Ward.
“It was just a couple of brain-dead errors that happened,” Kadri said. “Obviously, we’ve got to do a better job of closing games out.”
The game put the NHL’s worst power play (Hurricanes) against the NHL’s worst penalty killers (Leafs). By the end of the night, the Leafs failed again even though they killed off two of the Hurricanes’ three chances, as they allowed the overtime winner on the Hurricanes’ third power play. At the same time, the Leaf power play was 0-for-7, which was just as bad.
Kulemin scored the way the Leafs coaches want to see him score – going hard to the net and pouncing on loose pucks. He followed Darryl Boyce to the net and when Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward stopped Boyce the puck wound up in front, where Kulemin knocked it into the net.
It was Kulemin’s fourth goal of the season and first since Dec. 16 in Buffalo when he scored on a penalty shot against the Sabres. Before that, Kulemin had not scored since Oct. 22.
The Leafs left after the game for Winnipeg, where they will play the Jets on New Year’s Eve. This is a big game for Reimer, as it will be his first NHL game in his home province. He hails from Morweena, which is about 90 minutes by car north of Winnipeg. Most of the townsfolk are expected to try and attend the game.
Before the game, Reimer said, “Winnipeg won’t be much fun for sure if we don’t win [against the Hurricanes]” but he softened his stance after the loss to Carolina.
“It sucks that we didn’t win and we should have, but at least we got a point,” he said. “You know what? We lost but we still have a chance to go .500 on this road trip. Not in wins but in points.”