The Toronto Maple Leafs nearly took a page out of the book of the Canadian world junior team’s gold-medal loss on Thursday night.
With a three-goal lead early in the third period and the St. Louis Blues seemingly on the ropes, the Leafs let them right back in the game, allowing three unanswered goals to tie the game with time winding down.
Toronto then recovered by the skin of their teeth, winning 6-5 when Mikhail Grabovski, Kris Versteeg and Tyler Bozak all scored in a shootout.
It was a fitting finish to a game that was a wild and woolly one from the drop of the puck, as Toronto’s Colby Armstrong picked up his fourth goal of the season only 15 seconds in and then watched as his team quickly coughed up two goals to go down 2-1.
The Leafs stormed back in the second with three unanswered goals by Grabovski, Versteeg and Phil Kessel as Blues netminder Jaroslav Halak was pulled for only the second time this season.
Kessel then beat backup Ty Conklin on one of the first shots he faced, appearing to put the game away early in the third with a 5-2 lead.
The St. Louis rally came next, one kicked off by a controversial goal by Brad Winchester, who whacked at a loose puck and then shoved goalie Jonas Gustavsson into the net after the puck had beat him in.
With the Leafs still reeling from that play, Eric Brewer and Matt D’Agostini both scored to tie it up with six minutes to play, setting up the dramatic finish.
Don’t look now, but Phil the Thrill has started to reappear at the Air Canada Centre.
Kessel had a two-goal game for only the third time this season, beating both Blues netminders on laser beam wrist shots after nice individual efforts to find a lane to the net.
He was the only Leaf stopped in the shootout, however.
Kessel now has six goals and 11 points in his last 11 games after a brutal stretch with only three goals in 20 games that contributed to Toronto’s slump in the standings.
The low-scoring Leafs, meanwhile, scored five goals in a game for only the fourth time this season, as the recently hot Blues looked anything but in a horrible second period.
Tough night for Halak
Halak’s transition from the Montreal Canadiens’ playoff folk hero to backstop for the Blues hasn’t been without a few bumps in the road, something that continued against the Leafs.
Halak allowed four goals on 19 shots and was pulled for only the second time this season midway through the second period. His goals-against average and save percentage dropped to 2.52 and .911, well off the 2.40 and .924 he posted in Montreal a year ago.
The stop signs in St. Louis, in other words, don’t read Halak quite yet.
Halak can’t really complain about being overworked either, as the Blues are allowing some of the lowest shot totals in the league and far fewer than he saw as a Hab.
East beats West
Coming in, the game had all the hallmarks of being an easy match-up for the Blues, who boasted the best record of any Western Conference team against the East at 8-1-1.
Toronto, however, proved a bit more of a challenge than recent history suggested, improving its record to 4-5-0 against the West prior to a swing through the Western U.S. that begins Monday in Los Angeles.
Overall this season, the Western Conference was an incredible 86-48-20 against the East prior to Thursday’s games, dominating the weaker conference with the equivalent of a 102-point pace over a full season.
The playoff race in the West, meanwhile, is well under way, with St. Louis’ 46 points in 39 games putting them in a pack of 10 teams separated by a handful of points from fourth to 13th in the conference.