The Toronto Maple Leafs lost a lot more than a hockey game Thursday night.
Also lost was their inspirational leader along with a three-game winning streak in the 5-3 decision taken by the Philadelphia Flyers, who stretched their own win streak to four games. Joffrey Lupul left the game early in the first period after he was crunched along the boards by a couple of Flyers and suffered what is surely a head injury.
The latest absence for Lupul does not bode well for the Leafs. After he came back from missing 25 games because of a broken arm, Lupul played with an infectious purpose, running up eight goals and five assists in six games, a run that was interrupted by a two-game suspension for a head shot. The Leafs did not lose in regulation time while Lupul was in the lineup for that run, going 4-0-2.
Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle sounded hopeful Lupul would not be out of the lineup for long, saying he was "50-50 on practising" on Friday. But it is impossible to make predictions with head injuries and the way Lupul stumbled around the Leaf bench after the hit was not encouraging.
"He wasn't able to return to 100 per cent, so you always take those situations with caution," Carlyle said. "He feels fine now but that's what happens in the context of the game."
Lupul, 28, has played the best hockey of his career in the past two seasons since coming to the Leafs in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks. But he has also been star-crossed by injuries in the past several years. Since the 2008-09 season, Lupul has missed more than 100 games with various injuries.
Initially, the Maple Leafs appeared to weather the loss of Lupul, who was sandwiched by Flyers Adam Hall and Jay Rosehill, an ex-Leaf, at 8:40 of the first period. Lupul and Hall banged their heads together and Lupul's head snapped into Rosehill's shoulder.
The Leaf winger managed to wobble to the bench but had trouble navigating his way through the door and was taken to the dressing room. In time-honoured NHL fashion, the Leafs are calling Lupul's ailment an "upper-body injury."
The Leafs did managed to take a 2-1 lead after Lupul left, on a goal by defenceman John-Michael Liles, but they quickly sagged. Earlier in the first period, Simon Gagné of the Flyers and Leaf winger Nikolai Kulemin traded goals.
Carlyle was not inclined to blame the ennui on the loss of Lupul nor did he see the Leafs' four-day layoff after last Saturday's win over the Ottawa Senators as the problem.
When he was asked if Lupul's injury took the wind out of the Leafs' sails Carlyle said, "I didn't think we had any wind to start with so I don't see how you could take any out. We didn't play desperate enough. We were like a step behind; our execution was extremely poor."
The Flyers tied the score late in the first period when rookie centre Sean Couturier made a brilliant rush, leaving Leaf captain Dion Phaneuf and defence partner Carl Gunnarsson looking like the neophytes.
Couturier swept around Phaneuf and then fired a pass across the slot through Gunnarsson's legs to Jakub Voracek, who was all alone in front of Leaf goalie James Reimer, for an easy goal.
The Leafs gave up all semblance of competing in the second period. They fell behind 4-2 thanks to giveaways by Kulemim, which gave Brayden Schenn a goal, and defenceman Mike Kostka, with Rosehill cashing in.
Even though Reimer alternated between big saves and kicking rebounds into the slot, he really couldn't be faulted for the Leafs' woes. His defencemen were far more guilty of giving away the puck in their own end, as the Flyers controlled the play for almost the entire period, outshooting the Leafs 17-6.
James van Riemsdyk broke a 10-game scoring slump in the third period to cut Philadelphia's lead to one goal. The Leafs did show some life in the last few minutes of the third period but could not produce the tying goal. Former Leaf Luke Schenn scored an empty-net goal for the Flyers.
"You hope for the best," Liles said of Lupul's situation. "He's a big part of our team and everybody's got to step up."
Liles missed about six weeks of action last season because of a concussion and hopes Lupul's luck is better. "Hopefully, it's minor," Liles said. "When I got hit, I was able to finish the game but the next morning it felt like my world was turned upside down."