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Vancouver Canucks forward Chris Higgins celebrates his goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto December 17, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Cassese (Mike Cassese/Reuters)
Vancouver Canucks forward Chris Higgins celebrates his goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto December 17, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Cassese (Mike Cassese/Reuters)

Leafs fall short against Canucks Add to ...

On a rare night when their penalty killers got it right, the Toronto Maple Leafs still managed to find a way to lose.

Well, okay they only had one penalty to kill but it pitted the NHL’s worst penalty-killing unit against the league’s best, but the Leafs managed to do it. But they proved to be leaky in another area, which cost them a 5-3 decision to the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday night.

Specifically, the Leafs were sloppy in their own end of the ice, which was just the tonic for the Canucks, who righted themselves after two losses to a couple of the NHL’s doormats, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes. The Canucks finished their five-game road trip 3-1-1 and head home for a four-game homestand on a roll.

It was especially nice for them to finish with a win in Toronto, since several players had large groups of family and friends at the Air Canada Centre. Alexandre Burrows, who scored the winning goal, enjoyed it for another reason – he grew up in Montreal as a Canadiens fan, hating the Maple Leafs.

“It’s a great place to play,” Burrows said. “As a kid, you dream of playing on Hockey Night In Canada in Toronto.”

Burrows and the Canucks also got a lift from the return of his linemate, Daniel Sedin, from a one-game absence due to back spasms. Sedin played more than 18 minutes with brother Henrik and Burrows and scored a goal.

“Yeah, we had a tougher line with Daniel back,” Burrows said, referring to Dave Bolland of the Chicago Blackhawks causing a stir earlier in the week with his “Sedin sisters” reference.

The Leafs did give their fans at the Air Canada Centre a charge when Phil Kessel scored with two minutes, 43 seconds left in the third period to cut Vancouver’s lead to one goal. But Leaf defenceman Dion Phaneuf, who had a horrendous night, let Canucks forward Jannik Hansen, yes, that Jannik Hansen, blow past him with 1:19 to play to score on a nice solo rush.

Early in the first period, the Leaf defence pair of Luke Schenn and Jake Gardiner were too eager to join the rush and left Christopher Higgins alone in front of goaltender Jonas Gustavsson. Higgins had all the time he needed after taking a pass from Alex Edler to put the puck behind Gustavsson a little more than a minute after the opening faceoff.

The Leafs managed to even that up three minutes later on a power play when winger Joffrey Lupul literally used his head. A shot from the slot by centre Tyler Bozak hit Lupul on the helmet and the puck fell at his feet. Lupul quickly swept it into the net to tie the score.

But the Canucks were back in the lead before the second period was a minute old when forward Ryan Kesler, who had a great night, took the puck away from Lupul behind the Leaf net. He fed Mason Raymond in front for his third goal in six games since he returned from a back injury.

The Leafs tied it up again on a nice goal by Tyler Bozak. He could not settle a bouncing puck in the slot, so he spun around, fooling a Canuck defenceman, and put a beautiful backhand shot into the top corner.

But Leaf defenceman Dion Phaneuf was caught wandering in the final minute of the second period, which allowed Daniel Sedin to score with 44 seconds left to give the Canucks a 3-2 lead.

“It’s tough when you get a goal scored on you in the first minute of a period and in the last minute of a period,” Leafs defenceman John-Michael Liles said. “We’v got to play better in front of [Gustavsson]”

Burrows scored what proved to be the winning goal for the Canucks with just under six minutes remaining. He wound his way through the Leaf zone and put a shot under the crossbar as Schenn backed in on Gustavsson, blocking his view of the shot.

Gustavsson deserved better, as he faced 36 shots in a performance that was as good as the one posted by goaltender Roberto Luongo for the Canucks. But his defencemen deserted or screened him a little too often.

Luongo did not get as much work as Gustavsson (29 shots) but he was there when the Canucks needed him. In the first period, the Leafs got a two-on-one break just after Gustavsson made a nice toe save on Burrows but Luongo robbed Colby Armstrong with a great glove save. Later, Luongo made a great save on Tim Connolly to keep the Leafs on their heels.

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