The Toronto Maple Leafs scored four goals and held three different leads, but
their awful play in the defensive zone ultimately cost them a 5-4 overtime loss to the Islanders in Long Island Thursday night.
If the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to make the playoffs this season and advance beyond the first round, they are going to have to find a way to tighten up defensively.
Coach Randy Carlyle has been preaching this all season long, but his repeated message seems to be falling on deaf ears.
The Maple Leafs scored four goals and held three different leads, but their awful play in the defensive zone ultimately cost them a 5-4 overtime loss to the Islanders in Long Island Thursday night.
The Islanders were without their best player, centre John Tavares, who suffered a season-ending knee injury at the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. They were also without another centre, Frans Nielsen, who is expected to miss at least another week with a broken hand.
Still they were able to beat a team that had been one of the hottest in the NHL leading up to the Olympic break. Toronto was 11-2-1 in its final 14 games heading into the break gaining 23 of a possible 28 points.
Despite being out-shot 35-22, Toronto played well enough at times to win. Their carelessness in their own zone, however, did them in.
Things came to a head in overtime when Toronto left-winger James van Riemsdyk mishandled a puck in his team's zone that enabled Islanders defenceman Lubomir Vishnovsky to score his third goal of the season and give his team the win.
Toronto had seven giveaways in the game and three ended up in the back of its net.
"We gave them three goals," said a disgusted coach Randy Carlyle. "You can't win in the NHL giving away three goals. Gifts. Gifts. Total gifts."
The Maple Leafs took a 1-0 lead on Phil Kessel's 32nd goal of the season at 6:53 of the first period not long after he was flattened by a hit from New York's Mike Halmo, playing in his first NHL game.
When the Islanders Eric Boulton took a holding penalty at 14:42, Toronto generated an early scoring chance on the power play, but it was the Islanders who struck -- twice.
First Toronto defenceman Jake Gardiner made an ill-fated pass the Michael Grabner intercepted and beat Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier on the stick side. Then 48 seconds later the normally sure-handed Bernier made an awful passing attempt that bounced off the skate of defenceman Morgan Rielly and right to Grabner who scored a thank-you-very-much go-ahead goal.
To be fair to Bernier, he has been very good with his puck-handling this season and this was a rare mistake.
Grabner, by the way, tied Kessel for most goals in the Olympics with five in four games. He played for Austria while Kessel played six games for the United States.
Carlyle was asked about his team's failure on the power play and, again, said: "Gifts. I've got no other words to describe the goals that we gave up. As I described, you can't give up three goals (like that) and expect to win. We were fortunate to get a point."
Olympic break rustiness
Carlyle wasn't making an excuses about his
team's terrible defensive play. The Islanders also had an Olympic break
and seemed to play with more passion and desire to win. "You can expect
it for about a period, but when you get to the third and you're up,
you'd expect to tighten up. I think mentally we looked like we were
going to out-skill the hockey club we played and they had a different
attitude. We didn't play anywhere near the complete grind game that
we're capable of."
Offence from defence: Toronto's defence continues to chip in with goals. With the Maple Leafs trailing 2-1 early in the third period, Paul Ranger joined a rush and upon getting the puck in the Islanders zone, made a perfect pass to James van Riemsdyk who drilled a shot off the post. Ranger was there to stab the rebound home for his third goal of the season. Just over a minute later defenceman Dion Phaneuf drilled home a slap shot for his sixth of the season.
Those goals were the 11th and 12th goals supplied by the Maple Leafs blue-line in the past 15 games.
Taking one for the team
Toronto defenceman Tim Gleason attempted to spark his team, which was trailing 2-1 at the time, by engaging New York's Eric Boulton in a fight at 10:04 of the second period. It didn't turn out too good for Gleason, but he popped up after being dropped and told the linesman, "I'm all right." Gleason suffered a concussion in a pre-season game this season with Carolina and missed the first 10 games.
Centre Trevor Smith played his first game since Dec. 17 replacing injured Colton Orr in the lineup. Smith has had an interesting year. He was named captain of the AHL Toronto Marlies, but upon being called up by the Maple Leafs has proven himself NHL worthy. He had four goals and nine points in 25 games before breaking his hand. Smith was used sparingly playing 6:03 on seven shifts.
Mike BrophyMike Brophy brings a wealth of hockey writing and broadcasting experience to CBC Sports, having covered junior hockey for 14 years before joining The Hockey News as its senior writer for 17 years starting in 1992. Most recently, the Burlington, Ont., native worked as a writer/commentator at Rogers Sportsnet and as co-host of The Power Play on SiriusXM. Mike has written four books, including My First Goal, featuring 50 players describing their first NHL goals.