Leafs lose wild one in shootout

Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul appears to score with his foot on Penguins goalie Marc-Andre...

Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul appears to score with his foot on Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, but the goal was disallowed at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario on February 26, 2011. (FRED THORNHILL/Reuters)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:40 PM ET

TORONTO - James Reimer’s save percentage took a beating, but the Maple Leafs’ playoff position stayed about even.

A 6-5 shootout loss Saturday night at the ACC to the Pittsburgh Penguins allowed the Leafs to close back within five points of eighth-place Carolina, which lost and kept pace with the No. 9 seed Buffalo Sabres, who lost in extra time.

Alex Kovalev had the only shootout goal, with Joffrey Lupul, Phil Kessel and Mikhail Grabovski all blanked by Marc-Andre Fleury.

The short-handed Penguins put five past Toronto’s rookie netminder in regulation, but the Leafs offence produced a second-straight five-goal game. The Leafs are 8-2-3 in their late-season push.

Lupul not only scored his first as a Leaf, he nearly had Toronto’s first home hat trick since Boyd Devereaux in April of 2009.

The wheels looked like they were coming off the Leafs when blind backhand passes by Nikolai Kulemin and Keith Aulie resulted in the Pens taking a one-goal lead into the third period. Pittsburgh scored twice in the last minute of the opening two periods. The Pens, however, made their own mistakes at the start of the third, with a bad pinch and own-zone giveaway that resulted in goals by Clarke MacArthur and Lupul within 3:27.

In the third, Dion Phaneuf lost a puck at the blue line and Maxime Talbot buried a short-handed breakaway backhander on James Reimer, who has given up nine goals the past two games. Phaneuf went right to the rookie to apologize and returned to Reimer to tap sticks just a few minutes later when he blasted his third of the year on the same power play. But three Leafs could not dump a puck out and Michael Rupp, who had a lively first period fight with Jay Rosehill, fired a nice high wrist shot to tie it again.

The Pens came in with an injury list as long as an arm, topped by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who had accounted for 70 points in their 38 career games against the Leafs. But it was just as noteworthy that newcomer Kovalev had 71 in 68 games versus Toronto coming in.

The press box was jammed with Leafs pro scouts from around the continent, such as Mike Penny, Rob Cowie and Steve Kasper, all hunkering down for Monday’s trade deadline. The Leafs continue to pursue a defenceman, but could lose a potential acquisition such as Colorado’s John-Michael Liles to a needy contender.

Before the game, general manager Brian Burke said through a club spokesman there was “nothing new on any fronts”, trades or the MacArthur contract talks.

The game had a much better pace for the Leafs after a sluggish, penalty-filled contest in Montreal. That should have played into the hands of Leafs, who were at home and playing on a day’s rest.

The Pens nearly had a tap-in on a power play that hopped over James Neal’s stick and shots were even, 11-11 in the first. Lupul did get his first as a Leaf on the second Pittsburgh penalty that MacArthur drew in the period. A fat Phaneuf rebound came to Lupul in the slot in his eighth game in blue and white. But a last-minute goal by Kovalev drew Pittsburgh even, squeezing past Reimer and the post.

Kovalev, who had no points in 19 minutes of his debut in Carolina, was acquired for a conditional seventh-round draft pick, promised the Pens his best days are not behind him.

“Physically, I’m still strong, and I’m not much slower,” the 38-year-old told reporters the day before. “I’m still the same player, but maybe because it was a not good situation (with the last-place Senators) I couldn’t show that. I have a chance to show that now.”

Kovalev flew in his private jet to Raleigh on Thursday night.

“(The Pens) have shown they are still a tough team to play against, and that impresses me. Most teams would fold (without Crosby and Malkin), but they’ve found something in all of this. I’m pretty confident they’ve found a solution to win hockey games, and I’m pretty confident I can be a big part of that right now.”

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca

Twitter.com/sunhornby


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