The Toronto Maple Leafs playoff hopes are beginning to come unglued.
And the Montreal Canadiens were only too happy to be the team that made their woes a little bit deeper on Saturday night.
With a 4-3 win that included a wild first period and the trading of power play chances in the third, the suddenly surging Habs have opened a five-point gap on the Leafs that is going to be awfully hard for Toronto to close with just 10 games to play.
The bigger problem for the Leafs is that the rest of the Eastern Conference has caught up as they’ve lost four games – and five of their last six – in regulation in a row. The skid has allowed Detroit, Columbus and Washington to make up ground in the standings.
Toronto’s buffer after Saturday’s loss was down to just one points over ninth in the East, and the Leafs can be bumped out of a playoff spot by Sunday night entirely if they fail to gain a point in New Jersey.
Montreal, meanwhile, is basically playing for seeding, and a date with the Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 1 looking more and more a sure thing.
“That’s a huge game,” Canadiens captain Brian Gionta said. “With them right on our heels, it's a four-point swing.”
“We’ve got to pull ourselves out of it,” Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said. “It’s this group that’s going to get ourselves out of it. We’ve been close but close isn’t good enough right now.”
Saturday’s loss was once again a tough start for the Leafs and netminder James Reimer.
Making his fourth consecutive start in place of the injured Jonathan Bernier, Reimer allowed two goals in the game’s first seven minutes as part of an intense back-and-forth, five-goal first period.
As it has tended to, playing from behind then brought out the best in Toronto. Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak scored to quickly answer two early goals by Habs' Max Pacioretty and Rene Bourque.
Montreal took a 3-2 lead with less than a minute to play in the opening frame when Leafs defenceman Tim Gleason deflected a Gionta shot right past Reimer.
That was the kind of night it was for both teams: A defence-optional track meet where the last mistake lost the game, and that gaffe ultimately was the Leafs’.
After Nazem Kadri tied the game on a Leafs power play to open the third – hammering in a nice pass from behind the net from Lupul – Toronto’s ugly finish started with one of two key penalties in the game’s final 11 minutes.
Despite his protestations, James van Riemsdyk took the first, a goalie interference call on Carey Price, who said afterward that there was contact to his head and he “thought it was a penalty, personally.”
It was a costly call, too, with Phaneuf unable to clear, Tomas Plekanec put a wide angle shot short side on Reimer – the second ugly puck to beat him on his second tough night in a row – for the winner as the penalty expired.
“Obviously they made a good play,” Reimer said. “I thought I gave myself a chance, but it found a way through… It was kind of one bad bounce that really decided the game. I think we can hold our heads high.”
The Leafs comeback was then muted when they were whistled for too many men with four minutes to play, essentially killing their hopes of a late rally.
The damage in the standings was stark. Probability website sportsclubstats.com had Montreal’s playoff hopes improving to 98 per cent; Toronto’s fell to just 44 per cent.
The Canadiens, in other words, are now in the dance barring an unprecedented collapse while the Leafs are very much back in the thick of the dogfight, having let a comfortable seven-point cushion at the Olympic break slip away entirely.
“We still can play to a higher level,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “We have to work equally as hard and clean up some of the mistakes we made.”
“We’re still in a good spot,” Phaneuf said. “There’s no doubt about how hard we worked all year to put ourselves into this spot.”
There’s doubt, however, whether that will be enough. The Leafs likely need to win five or six of their final 10 games to get in, and several of those remaining are difficult matchups.
On Sunday, they’ll get a desperate Devils team clinging to its own playoff hopes, and Toronto will need to be a whole lot better than they were Saturday to finally pull out a two pointer.
If they don’t, their playoff odds will shrink again.
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