It's not often lately that the Toronto Maple Leafs have come up second best in the battle of goaltenders.
But last night, despite another decent performance from rookie James Reimer, the Maple Leafs couldn't find the range until it was far too late against the Phoenix Coyotes' Ilya Bryzgalov, a Vezina Trophy finalist last year and one of the more underrated goaltenders in the game,.
On a night when the Leafs' Mike Brown will almost certainly be called onto the NHL carpet for delivering a blindside hit to the head of the Coyotes' Ed Jovanovski, Bryzgalov turned aside the first 27 shots he faced Thursday night en route to a 5-1 Phoenix victory. The defeat snapped the Maple Leafs' win streak at four games.
Brown was back in the Leafs' line-up for the first time since he broke his finger versus the Tampa Bay Lightning back on Nov. 30, but it was hardly an auspicious return. With 54 seconds to go in the second period, Brown's shoulder crashed into Jovanovski's head as both battled for a loose puck just off the edge of the Coyotes' goal crease.
No penalty was called on the play. After lying on the ice for a few minutes to collect himself, Jovanovski got to his feet to retaliate, but was restrained by the linesmen.
Jovanovski was getting treatment afterward and not immediately available for comment, but his fellow Coyotes' defenceman Derek Morris thought there was little doubt about what occurred.
"It's hard for the refs to see everything out there," said Morris, "but it was definitely a blow to the head, so we'll see what the league does."
For his part, Brown thought in the act of reaching for the puck, Jovanovski put himself in a vulnerable position.
"I think he was just saying there was no reason to be hitting him there," said Brown. "It's the game of hockey. I play that style of game. Obviously, I don't mean to hurt anyone, or make any bad hit - elbow or shoulder. It was just in the heat of the moment, I went for the hit and just tried to go in with my shoulder."
Nor did Brown think a penalty was warranted on the play.
"I think the refs made a good call. They obviously didn't call it for a reason. I didn't think it was a bad hit. I was just going in with my shoulder like I normally would. I don't know what I hit on him. I think I just got him in a bad spot."
That exchange charged matters up between the teams and with seven seconds to go in the period, a melee broke out with the Leafs on the power play, which featured Clarke MacArthur pounding on Lauri Korpikoski, among other exchanges. The Leafs ended up with three penalties on the play, the Coyotes just one; negating the Toronto advantage and eventually putting Phoenix on the power play.
Early in the third, Shane Doan capitalized by scoring the Coyotes' second power-play goal of the game and from there, they won going away.
Radim Vrbata, Taylor Pyatt, Korpikoski and Keith Yandle, into an empty net, scored the other Phoenix goals. Colby Armstrong broke Bryzgalov's shutout bid with 4:08 to go in regulation.
Toronto previously overcame early deficits at other stages of their four-game road trip, but the Coyotes - the new, New Jersey Devils in terms of their ability to smother a team defensively - had all the answers.
"It didn't quite happen today," said Reimer. "The boys battled hard. They might have had the best first period of the road trip. We played hard in the second ... I was just three saves short. It's too bad."
VERSTEEG, SJOSTROM SIT OUT
The Leafs played without Kris Versteeg and Freddy Sjostrom, out with undisclosed injuries last night. Both were held out of practice Wednesday, nominally as maintenance days to rest what coach Ron Wilson described as "little bumps and bruises."
Brown and Brett Lebda took their spots in the line-up.
Goaltender J.S. Giguere also returned to duty, albeit as the back-up to starter James Reimer, marking his first appearance since leaving Toronto's Dec. 16 game against the Calgary Flames with a groin injury.
"That isn't necessarily a bad thing when a guy's been out of the line-up for a while," said Wilson. "Usually, you like a guy to back up for a game or two before he starts and kinda get into the flow of the game again."
For the Coyotes, newly acquired Michal Rozsival still hasn't made his debut, nursing what coach Dave Tippett described as a minor injury that will need a few more days to heal.
TICKETS? ANYBODY NEED TICKETS?
The Maple Leafs usually represent one of the NHL's better box-office attractions, averaging 17,506 spectators per night as a visiting team, or 94.3 per cent of capacity. That will take a nosedive after last night's visit to Jobing.com Arena, which featured acres of empty seats in a crowd that was announced as 11,205, but looked smaller. Despite another credible season on the ice, the Coyotes rank 29th in overall home attendance. Through their first 17 home dates, they had averaged just 10,881 spectators per night.
Rather than charter home immediately after the game, the Leafs opted to overnight in Arizona and thus were scheduled to travel out Friday morning to get ready for Saturday's date with the visiting Flames, which will mark captain Dion Phaneuf's second crack at his old team. The first didn't go all that well - the Leafs lost 5-2 in Calgary last month and managed only 19 shots, the only time since Oct. 23 that they'd managed fewer than 20 in a game.