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Hockey Bernier struggles in return as Maple Leafs fall to Lightning

Toronto Maple Leafs' goalie Jonathan Bernier(45) makes the stop against the Tampa Bay Lightning during third period NHL hockey action, in Toronto, on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Attention NHL schedule-makers: Mike Babcock is no fan of your six-day breaks.

We know this because the Toronto Maple Leafs coach let us know several dozen times over the past six days.

"We've been off I don't even know how long – it seems like three months," Babcock grumbled before the Maple Leafs' long-awaited meeting with the Tampa Bay Lightning and still-captain Steven Stamkos. "So the first 10 minutes are big for us."

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Well, the first 10 minutes weren't great. The rest of the game?

It went from bad to good to then much worse.

The Leafs blew a 3-1 lead in an ugly 5-4 overtime loss to the Lightning on Tuesday night, undermining what looked at the midway point to be one of their stronger outings in a while.

Once again, netminder Jonathan Bernier was at the centre of the implosion.

In his first start back with the Leafs after four games (three shutouts and one ugly one) in the American Hockey League on a conditioning stint, Bernier was beaten five times on only 27 shots.

Tampa's second shot of the game – a breakaway gifted to sniper Nikita Kucherov, to be fair – made it 1-0 only three minutes in.

But the "oh no here we go again" portion of the night didn't come until later – mostly because Bernier had plenty of goal support, something he had lacked all season in failing to win a single game in 10 appearances (0-8-2).

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After Kucherov's goal, the Leafs offence produced three straight replies, including two from Babcock's new "second" line of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and P.A. Parenteau, which has plenty of potential to be dangerous in an offence-first role.

All three had two points in the first period, including Bozak netting both his 100th goal and 250th point. Curiously, he now has as many points this season as former linemate Phil Kessel, in four fewer games – a stat that speaks to the dysfunction in Pittsburgh these days. But credit to Bozak for a strong start, too.

But then almost everything the Lightning threw at the Leafs net started going in. Anton Stralman beat Bernier high late in the second period. Then Mike Blunden and Jonathan Marchessault – both playing up the lineup for the beaten-up Lightning – scored weird ones early in the third.

The Leafs did manage to press and rescue a point, scoring an equalizer late when Dan Winnik directed it in through traffic.

That only held until overtime, when again Bernier allowed a high, hard shot – this time off the stick of Lightning youngster Vladislav Namestnikov.

It wasn't a gimme. But it was a fitting end for what wasn't a great return to the crease for Bernier.

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Babcock's biggest frustration with the long layoff last week was likely how it interrupted one of his team's best stretches all year. Save for a blowout loss in Winnipeg to start December, the Leafs have been remarkably efficient of late, with a 8-5-2 record in their last 15 games.

After a brief dip, Toronto also has been a solid possession team – something that was evident all night against the Lightning. The Leafs led big on the shot clock after the first period (16-4), and carried the play to the tune of having nearly 60 per cent of the attempts on goal.

Bozak's line was a big driver of that, but every Leafs trio – save for the little-used fourth unit centred by Byron Froese – was in the black.

You could certainly support the argument of rest (Toronto) versus rust (Tampa), given the Lightning's hard-fought win in Columbus the night before. But the Leafs have been on the other end of that equation often this year.

Given this was a battle between a supposed contender – a Tampa team that went to the final six months ago – and a team expected to bottom out, all in all, the Leafs played well.

What they didn't get was that one extra save – and that could mean rookie Garret Sparks once again gets the call over Bernier when San Jose comes to town Thursday.

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Babcock, after all, isn't known for his patience.

"We need him to be good and he wants to be good and we want him to be good," Babcock said of Bernier. "Now the next part is the execution at our level."

The Leafs are still waiting.

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