The old 18-wheeler that still haunts the Toronto Maple Leafs took a long, slow, agonizing ride toward the cliff on Saturday night. It hasn't gone off the edge yet but it's getting mighty close.
After the Leafs salvaged a point by coming back from a three-goal deficit to force overtime against the Winnipeg Jets, they could not get any further, losing their fifth consecutive game on one of the longer NHL shootouts anyone has seen. One of the strangest, too, as three Leafs (Nazem Kadri, Matt Frattin and James van Riemsdyk) hit the post along with Jets forward Bryan Little.
Jets defenceman Zach Bogosian, the 10 shooter for his team and 20 of the shootout, finally scored to give Winnipeg a 5-4 win.
With the New Jersey Devils losing to the Montreal Canadiens, that created a tie in points for sixth and seventh in the Eastern Conference between New Jersey and Toronto. The win allowed Winnipeg to ascend to third place as the Southeast Division leaders in the NHL's wonky seeding system, despite having 32 points like the Leafs and Devils. The Carolina Hurricanes fell to eighth from third with 31 points.
While the NHL may consider the Leafs' losing streak is over since they salvaged a point, that is still a loss and they still have not won a game since Mar. 6. They are showing no sign the late-season disaster that struck a year ago can be avoided.
Once again, consistency was the problem. The Leafs started strong but could not sustain it. Toronto finally snapped out of their funk late in the second period but could not do any better than tying the score, despite having the best scoring chances in overtime.
"The positive we take out of it is we again found a way to get a point," Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said. As for his team's continuing mental lapses, Carlyle said "we don't mean to play like that but it seems to grasp our group."
For a good portion of the evening it looked like the Leafs' highlight was going to be Joffrey Lupul's first shift since missing 25 games with a broken arm. He stepped on the ice just in time to see Jets winger Kyle Wellwood cough up the puck to Kadri, who fired a pass across the slot to Lupul. Lupul put a backhand shot into the top corner one minutes and 32 seconds into the game, scoring his second goal of the season as the crowd, which began cheering when he stepped on the ice, roared. Lupul showed his delight by raising his glove in the universal sign for more applause. He did it again in the second period when he scored his second goal of the game.
"We're scoring, we're playing hard so it's all right to cheer," Lupul said of his cheerleading. "I felt great. The legs were good."
But things got steadily worse for the Leafs from that point on and by the last five minutes of the second period they were downright ugly as the Jets took a 4-1 lead. Winnipeg took charge from the start of the second period, outshooting the Leafs 10-2 in the first seven minutes and 16-8 over 20, and scored four consecutive goals as the Leafs were simply outworked in their own end. However, the Leafs made it easy to be outworked as they spent too much time standing around watching goaltender Ben Scrivens try to hold off the visitors.
"We came out and played well at the start," Lupul said. "Then we had some problems getting the momentum back. We were turning pucks over."
James Wright started things off for the Jets with his first goal of the season by finishing a three-way passing play with Wellwood and Nik Antropov. This was followed by a couple of oddities – Jets forwards Antti Miettinen and Blake Wheeler scored consecutive goals by batting the puck out of mid-air and behind Scrivens.
Then Wheeler underlined the Leafs' sloppy play in the their own end by carrying the puck around the Toronto net and leaving defenceman Korbinian Holzer in his wake. He then caught Scrivens on a wraparound shot for his second consecutive goal and 12th of the season.
At that point it looked like the Leafs were following the dreadful script from a year ago when a loss to the Jets on Feb. 7 started a 2-13-2 downward spiral. That saw them fall out of a playoff position and sparked the famous quote from former general manager about the season being akin to an 18-wheeler going off a cliff.
However, after Carlyle made a quick line shuffle late in the second period, help came from an unlikely source. Nikolai Kulemin, dropped from Lupul's line to the fourth unit with Jay McClement and Leo Komarov, scored his 10th goal in his last 98 games with one minute and 25 seconds left in the period.
Orr was moved from the fourth line up to play with Kadri and Lupul and the latter respond with his second goal of the game 25 seconds later on another feed from Kadri. This time Lupul egged on the crowed even harder for more applause.
Carlyle kept shuffling, pulling Scrivens in favour of James Reimer (who was pulled in Tuesday's loss to the Jets) to start the third period. The only line left intact was the top one of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and van Riemsdyk. They showed their gratitude just shy of six minutes into the period when Bozak sent Kessel in alone with a nice saucer pass and Kessel put his 10th goal of the season into the top corner to tie the score 4-4.
"It was a good game for Hockey Night In Canada," Jets head coach Claude Noel said. "It was exciting from that standpoint. It was a little too exciting from our standpoint. It got a little upsetting to see that 4-1 lead got to 4-3 [in the second period]."
The Jets are right back in action Sunday afternoon as they visit the Ottawa Senators but the Leafs do not play again until Wednesday when they play host to the Tampa Bay Lightning.