The Toronto Maple Leafs gained a point on their quarry in the NHL playoff race but they squandered an opportunity for a better advance.
After a wildly entertaining night of hockey, the Leafs were left with a 6-5 shootout loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Air Canada Centre. The difference was Penguins forward Alexei Kovalev, who scored the only shootout goal after the Penguins dominated the five-minute overtime period.
This was not a game the Leafs, who went into the night six points behind the Carolina Hurricanes, who hold the eighth and last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, could afford to lose since they have a game in hand on the Hurricanes. The Penguins played the night before, losing to the Hurricanes, and are without superstars Sidney Crosby (concussion) and Evgeni Malkin (knee) due to injuries. Since the Leafs can only afford to lose a handful of games over the rest of the regular season, losing to injury-depleted teams is not advisable.
What made this an even bigger opportunity was that the Hurricanes lost 4-3 to the Montreal Canadiens in regulation time on Saturday. Also helping the Leafs a bit was the Detroit Red Wings' shootout win over the Buffalo Sabres, although the ninth-place Sabres also moved one point closer to the Hurricanes. The net gain for the Leafs on the 'Canes was a single point, thanks to the shootout loss, but it could have been two.
The Leafs will not have long to fret over this, as defenceman Dion Phaneuf noted, since they flew to Atlanta after the game to prepare for a Sunday afternoon game against the Thrashers. "It's not very tough to put this behind you because we've got to play tomorrow," he said.
But the Leafs were fortunate to escape overtime, as they let the Penguins control the play. Rookie goaltender James Reimer made some big saves to deny the Penguins but the Leafs could not manage a goal in the shootout, so they are five points behind the Hurricanes and two points behind the Sabres.
"You never want to let in five goals," said Reimer, who played well over the evening despite allowing a soft goal in the third period that let the Pens tie the score. "It was just a tough game and a wild third period.
"In those situations, you just want to make the next save for your team. Unfortunately, I couldn't quite do it. The puck was just avoiding me."
It was also avoiding Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, since both teams combined for five goals in the first half of a roller-coaster third period.
Actually, the Penguins appeared to have the Leafs on the ropes in the final seconds of the second period. They were firing pucks in the general direction of Reimer in hopes of finding some offence and it worked.
Forward Dustin Jeffrey, one of those summoned in the wake of the injuries to Crosby and Malkin, knocked in a loose puck off a feed from Pascal Dupuis with 16 seconds left in the second period. That came not long after Mark Letestu tied the score on a power play and sent the Penguins to the dressing room with their first lead of the game, 3-2.
The Leafs, though, wasted little time bouncing back in the third period. But the Penguins stayed with them, as both teams combined for five goals in the first nine minutes and eight seconds of play.
Clarke MacArthur, whose agent Don Meehan is trying to get a new contract for him out of Leafs general manager Brian Burke, scored at 2:52 to tie the score 3-3. Then Joffrey Lupul scored his second goal of the game 35 seconds later to put the Leafs back in front, 4-3.
At that point, it looked like the Penguins were back on their heels. Neither Leaf goal was pretty, as Fleury let the puck get under him both times, but Lupul's was particularly soft.
However, the fun was just beginning. In the next few minutes Leaf captain Dion Phaneuf went from goat to hero only to see Reimer surrender a bad goal to Pittsburgh.
That sequence started when Phaneuf committed a terrible giveway in the Penguins end during a Leaf power play. This gave Max Talbot a shorthanded breakaway and he tied the score 4-4.
But Phaneuf made amends less than a minute later by blasting a slapshot past Fleury to restore the Leafs lead. Then the see-saw tilted the other way as there was another giveaway in the Leafs end and Mike Rupp tied the score 5-5 when Reimer slid too far back in his net to stop a shot to the top corner.
Lupul and Kovalev, in his second game with the Penguins after a trade with the Ottawa Senators, traded goals in the first period. Colby Armstrong gave the Leafs a lead in the second period with his eighth goal of the season.
"[The Penguins]play a crash-the-net game and we weren't able to cope with it," Leafs head coach Ron Wilson said. "We turned too many pucks over and mishandled them in our own end."