Pittsburgh Penguins' Pascal Dupuis, left, celebrates his game-winning goal as Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel looks on during the third period in Toronto on Thursday. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)
How will the Toronto Maple Leafs deal with their first prolonged slump of the season? Will they be able to tune out the panic and fret from their fickle fans after a 3-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Toronto's fourth loss in a row?
The next 48 hours will be a curious time for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
How will they deal with their first prolonged slump of the season? Will they be able to tune out the panic and fret from their fickle fans?
Can they ground the soaring Winnipeg Jets at home on Saturday? If the Maple Leafs drop their next game in regulation time, the Jets will fly by Toronto in the standings.
The Maple Leafs fell to 0-3-1 in the second half of the season after they surrendered three late goals to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a 3-1 defeat at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday.
The Maple Leafs should have known they were not out of the woods after 52 solid, tight-checking minutes. If Sidney Crosby and the Penguins can score three times in the final 6:18 for a 3-2 win against a contender like the Boston Bruins on Tuesday, what would prevent them from rallying against a team like the Maple Leafs?
So there were the Maple Leafs up 1-0 on Pittsburgh, thanks to a second-period goal from Tyler Bozak.
They appeared to have learned from their wayward ways after a couple of difficult defensive lessons were taught to them in losses to the Jets and these same Penguins in the last two games. Toronto gave up a combined nine goals in a 5-2 loss in Winnipeg on Tuesday and in a 5-4 shootout loss last Saturday (shootout goals do no count in goals against).
This game against Pittsburgh was progressing much better for the Maple Leafs. They were in it the entire way. There was no room for the 19,561 at the Air Canada Centre to begin a "Let's go Blue Jays" chant or maybe pickup on the controversy from earlier in the week and repeat "Free Jake Gardiner."
No, the Maple Leafs were solid for 52 minutes. Then they found a way to allow the good vibrations to slip out the door.
Toronto defenceman Korbinian Holzer was knocked off the puck by Penguins forward Chris Kunitz in the Maple Leafs end to start a Kunitz-to-Crosby-Pascal Dupuis for the tying goal with 7:18 remaining.
A few shifts later, Kunitz carried the puck into a Maple Leafs zone along the boards with Bozak checking him. Kunitz stopped swiftly to shake Bozak. His linemate Phil Kessel trailed the play, circled and failed to fill the passing lane before Kunitz found Dupuis in the slot wide open for his second of the game and the game-winner.
"Fundamentally, we had some breakdowns that cost us the game," Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. "It's not all doom and gloom, but it's doom and gloom with the way we lost. It tears at the fabric of your heart because we found a way to lose, not a way to win."
The Maple Leafs have dropped to seventh place in the East, one point ahead of the Jets, who have a game in hand. Toronto's four-game losing streak has some of its critics recalling their second-half collapse of a year ago.
There are no guarantees that the Maple Leafs will be able to find better times and put a halt to the recent slide.
But the math is simple. They have 20 regular season games left on their schedule. The projections indicate they will need 23 points to be in the top-eight in the East.
How they perform on Saturday will go a long way in determining their fate and whether they can snap the organization's rather embarrassing playoff drought of seven long seasons.
"It's about regrouping and getting ready for Saturday night," Carlyle said.
Yes, these are interesting times in Maple Leafs land.
Tim WharnsbyTim's worked the sports beat at The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Sun, specializing in Canada's one true sporting obsession - hockey. He knows the players, the coaches, the backroom boys and most importantly, the fans. That's what he brings to his stories. Knowledge, fairness and understanding are trademarks of a Wharnsby story. That's what you will get here as he writes for CBCSports.ca.