BUFFALO - Mental miscues and a sudden inability to score with a man advantage conspired to kill the Maple Leafs’ season-long winning streak on Friday night.
After five consecutive games with at least one power-play goal, the Leafs came up dry on four opportunities in a 3-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres at the First Niagara Center.
And the Leafs gave up the winning goal to Sabres captain Jason Pominville in the second period when defenceman Luke Schenn, who has been the subject of trade rumours with the Philadelphia Flyers, forgot to peek over his shoulder. Pominville easily popped a pass from Thomas Vanek behind goaltender Jonas Gustavsson.
“We lost our coverage in front of the net,” coach Ron Wilson said of Schenn’s brain cramp. “We were caught staring at the puck. Vanek made a great pass, but we should have had coverage in front of the net and we didn’t.
“I thought all in all we played very well throughout the whole game. We had puck possession for the majority, skated well, but we did not get enough pucks to the net.”
The Leafs’ winning streak was halted at four, but they remain in seventh in the Eastern Conference. They will attempt to start another one on Saturday night when the New York Rangers, a team the Leafs have beaten twice this season, visit the Air Canada Centre.
Wilson said he had not decided who would start in goal, and suggested it would not be fair for the media to speculate. Well, Gustavsson should be the guy to play again, not James Reimer, as it was not Gustavsson’s fault the Sabres won.
Gustavsson robbed Derek Roy late in the game and with some luck would have won again. Unless Gustavsson is tired, there is no reason for Reimer to start against the Rangers. Gustavsson finished with 22 saves.
It’s true that a couple of deflections resulted in Sabres goals, as Matt Ellis’ pass off Cody Franson made it 1-0 when the game was two shifts old and Paul Gaustad’s shot caromed off Carl Gunnarsson on its way to the net.
The Leafs were able to come back and erase a 2-0 deficit in the first period for the first time this season on goals by Mikhail Grabovski and Joey Crabb, but overall, Toronto was not overly superior.
Yes, there were a couple of hit posts, but the Leafs weren’t always sharp. The top line of Tim Connolly between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul was on the ice for the first two Sabres goals, against Buffalo’s fourth line no less. Connolly was knocked off the puck by Gaustad too easily on the opening goal.
The power play was not crisp, and when the Leafs were assessed a minor for too many men on the ice with 12 minutes left in the third, it indicated that not everyone’s head was in it. A bench minor that late in a tight game was inexcusable, but the situation was made a bit better when the Sabres were whistled for a penalty before the Leafs’ minor expired.
“We just weren’t good enough,” Connolly, who indicated his health his 100%, said. “They played a solid, tough-fought game and we have to be better. The good thing about it is we can get right back at it tomorrow.”
Grabovski scored for the fourth time in five games, and though the top line did not produce for the second game in a row, Wilson also has to coax more out of the Clarke MacArthur-Matthew Lombardi-Nazem Kadri unit.
Grabovski had a great chance to tie the game midway through the third, but Jochen Hecht steered the puck away before Grabovski could shoot in into an open net.
The Leafs again were disciplined, and have been shorthanded just four times in four games, killing them all. Mike Brown had the other Toronto penalty, for delay of game, in the first.
Now it’s the Rangers on tap.
“It’s going to be a good test,” captain Dion Phaneuf said. “We have to rebound and play well. They’re a well-rounded team, and it’s why they are where they are in the standings (first in the Eastern Conference).”