ATLANTA — As if there hasn’t been enough excitement and drama around the Maple Leafs these days.
The arrival of the trade deadline.
The scent of a playoff race.
And now this: Another blown lead and squandered point in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Atlanta Thrashers, a team that until the final 20 minutes Sunday evening at Philips Arena, was playing like a team kissing the post-season so long.
Sure, the single moved the Leafs to within four points of Carolina and the coveted eighth in the Eastern Conference. But the specifics of this heartbreaker may have brought even more pain.
Not only did they squander the bonus point for a second consecutive night, the Leafs lost goaltender James Reimer, the man who has been a rock in net and a true rallying point in the team’s impressive February push.
The big rookie was bowled over by Thrashers forward Evander Kane early in the second period, stayed in to make a couple of spectacular saves and then was relieved by J-S Giguere.
The team isn’t saying anything about Reimer’s status beyond coach Ron Wilson’s “he couldn’t finish the game so we’ll see,” but it’s suspected he is being evaluated for a head injury.
“I think you’d rather be more cautious than anything, especially when you deal with those kinds of blows to the head,” said Giguere, who allowed three goals on 25 shots. “I haven’t seen him so I don’t think it’s my place to comment on how he’s feeling.”
Defenceman Ron Hainsey’s shot from the top of the circle 2:31 into overtime was the dagger this time, finishing off a Thrashers rally that started just 23 seconds into the third on a power- play goal by Andrew Ladd.
The overtime loss moved the Leafs to 63 points — two back of Buffalo for ninth in the East — but the two gained by the Thrashers allowed them to pull even with Toronto. While it had to be an excruciating flight home from the Peach State, Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said that the team has to adopt a post-season mentality in more ways than one.
“The biggest thing is, it’s like playoffs,” Phaneuf said. “You can’t get too high and you can’t get too low.
“As soon as the game is over, move on to the next one because you don’t have time to dwell on it, good or bad.”
Loosing in a shootout to the Pens at home on Saturday with a series of blown one-goal leads is one thing. But having the Thrashers, a team that had dropped its previous five and seemed confused and disinterested for much of the first 40 minutes was quite another.
“The momentum swing was all our power play,” Wilson said. “We didn’t even generate anything. We looked lackadaisical. It was only a matter of time when we didn’t do that, we were going to allow them into the game.”
It’s hard to imagine one loss — as tough as it was to stomach — switching Leafs general manager Brian Burke from buyer to seller or reverse as Monday’s 3 p.m. deadline approaches.
Burke was at the game with right-hand man Dave Nonis, but after a day of working the phones as trade talk heated up, but between periods said he had “nothing to report.”
Once they had their legs under them five minutes into the game, the Leafs seemed poised to finish off a three games in four nights stretch in style. First-period goals by Nik Kulemin and Phil Kessel, on another brilliant end-to-end rush opened up a 2-0 lead and the Thrashers futile and frustrated.
The lack of a killer blow will only add to the agony.
“It should never be a factor in a game like that,” Kessel said when asked if the team had grown leg-weary. “It was an important game for us. We’re up two in the third and you’ve got to win those games.”
Kessel’s right, of course. Because even though a 20-point February has the Leafs in a place where March could be a lot of fun, should the team just miss the playoffs, the ones that got away will sting even more.