A short mid-game lapse was the difference between victory and defeat for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night.
Defenceman Dalton Prout and centre Artem Anisimov scored less than three minutes apart in the second period as the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets held off the Leafs for a 2-1 victory.
"We had a mediocre second period and it cost us the game," said Leafs defenceman Cody Franson. "We got away from our game plan, we tried to get cute with the puck and turned it over too many times. And when you play a team that has that kind of transitional ability, that's not what you want to do."
The Leafs carried the play for the majority of the first period and skated with desperation in the third, but ultimately couldn't break through the Blue Jackets' defence.
"For the first period we had lots of life and we were winning battles," said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. "In the second period we just started to stall in the neutral zone. We're a team that needs to push the puck up the ice and establish a forecheck and we didn't do that for the first 13, 14 minutes of the second period."
'We got away from our game plan, we tried to get cute with the puck and turned it over too many times. And when you play a team that has that kind of transitional ability, that's not what you want to do.' - Leafs' Cody Franson
When the Leafs were able to apply some pressure, Sergei Bobrovsky was more than equal to the task. The Columbus goalie made 28 saves and stood especially tall when Toronto pushed for the tying goal in the final minutes of the game.
"Their goalie made some really big saves in the third period and we missed some opportunities that we usually score on," said Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul. "We had some good chances, they just didn't go in."
It's the Leafs third consecutive defeat since the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Toronto dropped overtime games on the road to the New York Islanders on Thursday and Montreal Saturday.
"The three losses hurt because we had points available to us on the road," Carlyle said. "That's the hard part, losing two overtime games on the road when we had one-goal leads in both games. That kind of kicks you a little bit, it doesn't feel very good."
The Leafs remain in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, but five teams are within five or fewer points.
"Obviously we wanted a different outcome in the past three games," Franson said. "But if you look at them we were sloppy on [Long] Island and still gave ourselves a chance to win. I thought we played a pretty decent game against Montreal, a couple of bounces and some penalty trouble cost us that one.
"We didn't play a full 60 minutes tonight and that's on us. The other two games could've gone either way."
The loss against Columbus ended a seven-game home winning streak for Toronto, the Leafs longest at Air Canada Centre since a nine-game run in 2006-07.
'Quite confident' before Olympic break
"We were rolling pretty good there and feeling quite confident in what we were doing [before the Olympic break]," Franson said. "When you're rolling like that, sometimes it can be difficult to find that smoothness in how you were performing before."
The victory gives the Blue Jackets a sweep of the season series as Columbus beat Toronto 5-2 on Oct. 25 and thumped the Leafs 6-0 on Nov. 25.
"They play a stingy game, they don't give you too much," Franson said. "They forecheck hard, they make you execute down low and if you don't you're going to get bit."
Mason Raymond scored the lone goal for Toronto (32-23-8), making a game of it when he wired a slapshot past Bobrovsky at 15:45 of the third period. That's as close as the Leafs would get, however, despite a late flurry when goalie James Reimer was pulled.
"We didn't have enough of getting pucks through," Carlyle said. "It seemed like when we had glorious opportunities early in the game, they were blocking the shots. Later on, we stopped going to the front of the net and Bobrovsky had clear sightlines to make the saves."
Reimer made 31 saves in a losing effort. It was his first start since Jan. 25.
"I hadn't been in there for a while, so you're a little rusty and the game's different than a practice, it's faster, you have to battle harder through traffic," Reimer said. "There was a little rust there, but I felt pretty good."
The teams were tied 0-0 after the first period and Columbus led 2-0 through 40 minutes.
"They took over the game in the second period, they played really well, and we didn't find an answer soon enough," Lupul said.
Reimer was sharp early as the Blue Jackets applied pressure, including a clear-cut breakaway by Columbus left-winger Nick Foligno less than for minutes into the game that was denied by the Leafs goalie.
"We gave up two point-blank breakaways and Reimer stopped them both," Carlyle said. "You can't point to our goaltending as a deficiency, for sure. He did his part to give us a chance."
Aided by a pair of power plays in the middle of the opening period, Toronto took over the momentum for the rest of the first period and had a handful of scoring chances but couldn't solve Bobrovsky.
Prout opened the scoring when his slapshot from the left point beat a screened Reimer at 9:44 of the second. It was the defenceman's first goal in 30 games this season and his second goal in 63 career NHL games.
"He's one of those guys that you root for and his teammates root for," said Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards.
Anisimov gave the vistors a two-goal lead when he converted Nathan Horton's pass at the side of the crease at 12:38.
Columbus went 0-for-1 on the power play while Toronto was 0-for-2.