Better was not good enough for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
They were much better Wednesday night than they were in their first two games against the Boston Bruins, which were both blowouts. But the result was still the same, as the Leafs fell 6-3 to the NHL's hottest team, which is now 12-0-1 in its last 13 games.
By winning on the last night in November, the Bruins became just the third team in NHL history to not lose a game in regulation time during the month of November. On Oct. 30, the Bruins woke up to find themselves last in the Eastern Conference. One month later, Wednesday's win moved them past the Leafs and Florida Panthers and into second place in the conference, one point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Leafs managed to stay with the Bruins for 40 minutes, as the defending Stanley Cup champions held a 3-2 lead going into the third period, but a little better defensive play could have seen the hosts in front instead. Sloppy play in front of their own net and a turnover plus some tepid back-checking allowed the Bruins to pull ahead twice in the second period.
"I felt we deserved a better outcome," Leaf captain Dion Phaneuf said. "The way the score ended up didn't reflect how well we played. We played hard and deserved better but give [the Bruins]credit, they played their system well."
The Bruins controlled the play in the first part of the first period but took a penalty to give the Leafs the early lead on a power-play goal by Mikhail Grabovski. But it proved to be their only lead of the game. By the five-minute mark of the third period, the Leafs were back in familiar territory against the Bruins, down by two goals and pretty much out of contention.
A lack of discipline was the big problem at first, which highlighted the Leafs' penalty-killing woes, and then their defensive game sagged. The Leafs now have three losses this season to the Bruins and have been out-scored 19-5.
When Bruins forward Tyler Seguin took a high-sticking penalty, the Leafs had a chance to get the upper hand on the visitors. Instead, forward Joffrey Lupul and Carl Gunnarsson took penalties and the Bruins wound up with a power-play goal from Milan Lucic. Then a couple of defensive breakdowns helped David Krejci put the Bruins back in front.
"We need to be better in front of our net," said Leaf defenceman Luke Schenn. "That goal by Lucic took the wind out of our sails.
"All in all, I think the guys played pretty strong. It wasn't a complete blowout like the score might show."
The Leafs tied the score four minutes after Krejci scored when Lupul buried a beautiful pass from Phil Kessel. But Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara got the lead back and then a goal by Benoit Pouliot put them up 4-2 early in the third period.
Matt Frattin's second goal of the season brought the Leafs to within one but it was not enough to get past a team as good as the Bruins, as Lucic scored his second goal of the game with 4:39 left to settle the matter. Brad Marchand added an empty-net goal.
"They seem to have our number. I was pleased with the way we played," Leafs head coach Ron Wilson said. "Unfortunately, they had five or six power plays to our one and a half. We looked like we got a little weary late in the game but our young legs, like the [Joe]Colborne line, played pretty well. If we keep playing like that, we'll beat that team."
The Leafs will get a chance to do that on Saturday when this home-and-home test finishes with a game in Boston.
"No loss is good and we came up short," said Phaneuf, although he was willing to acknowledge there were some good things about it. "We'll take the good from this and move forward. This sets up Saturday's game."
The Leafs proved to be a boon for a couple of Bruins. When Lucic got an open shot on a first-period power play and scored on a one-timer, it was his first goal in eight games. Early in the second period, Krejci broke his own slump when he took advantage of sloppy coverage on front of the net by every Leaf concerned and scored his first goal in nine games. Both slumps were somewhat overlooked because the Bruins won 11 of their last 12 games going into the meeting with the Leafs.
Every time Gustavsson gets a chance to establish a claim on the No. 1 goaltender's job with the Leafs he lets it slip away. Wednesday's game was a perfect example. He went into the game with a couple of good performances under his belt and was easily the best Maple Leaf in the first period. But then he was late getting a pad down in the face of equally lax defensive coverage and Krejci scored to put the Bruins ahead. Then, after the Leafs tied the score, Gustavsson couldn't provide a key save when the Leafs needed it and Chara scored on a long wrist shot to restore the visitors' lead.
"Maybe I could have had one of those goals," Gustavsson said. "It's tough to say until you see the replay."
The Leafs got two players back from the injured list when defenceman Carl Gunnarsson and forward Dave Steckel returned to the lineup. But regulars Mike Komisarek, Mike Brown, Matthew Lombardi, James Reimer and Colby Armstrong are still out, which is a reasonable excuse in losing to a team as good as the Bruins.
"We haven't used that excuse yet and we're not going to," Phaneuf said.