PHILADELPHIA - By now, with playoff-like intensity seeping into every game, the thought might have been that the Maple Leafs got the sloppy efforts out of the way.
After a run of impressive and defensively sound hockey, the Leafs handed the game to the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night and left goaltender James Reimer to fend for himself, losing 4-3 after allowing five goals in their previous four games.
Had the Leafs been responsible for 60 minutes, they probably would have departed the Wells Fargo Center with a victory, as the hosts weren’t terribly interested in keeping the puck out of their own net.
The Leafs were thrown into disorganization by the Flyers’ persistent fore-check in the opening 20 minutes, and though they recovered in the third period, it was too late.
“We let them dictate the pace of the game in the first and that’s not like us,” captain Dion Phaneuf said. “We’re a high-tempo, fast team and when we move the puck and skate, we are effective. We sat back too much for our liking.
“We fought hard to get back to 2-2. They came back and they scored those quick ones and it took wind out of our sail. They scored another one and we couldn’t break them in the third.”
The Leafs killed off four penalties, making it a perfect 28 kills in 17 games in 2012. But they fell to eighth in the Eastern Conference as the Ottawa Senators beat the Nashville Predators.
Tyler Bozak might have had his third goal of the game and the equalizer with five minutes left, but could not raise the puck over Sergei Bobrovsky. Colby Armstrong had a smart deflection turned away by Bobrovsky early in the third.
Joffrey Lupul celebrated the one-year anniversary of his trade to the Leafs with a goal and an assist. In 83 games with the Leafs, Lupul has 31 goals and 45 assists, solid numbers by anyone’s standards.
Bozak scored two goals and linemate Phil Kessel had two assists.
Scott Hartnell, Max Talbot, Claude Giroux and Brayden Schenn scored for the Flyers.
Phaneuf fought Hartnell immediately after the latter scored, and Mike Brown beat on Zac Rinaldo in the first period. Though Brown clearly won the fight, it did nothing to light a fire under his teammates.
The Leafs players talked earlier in the day about the importance of beating the Flyers, not only for the two points but for the mental toughness that could come out of a victory.
Instead, the Leafs fell seven points behind Philly, and it’s clear Toronto has a ways to go before it gets into the same echelon as the Flyers, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers.
The Leafs were looking okay when Lupul’s first power-play goal since Dec. 17 tied the game at 5:57 of the second. But a pair of Flyers goals in a span of less than two minutes, after Leafs giveaways, wound up giving the visitors the fate they deserved.
“We did not want pucks along the wall, we turned pucks over left and right, and a team like that had lost three games in a row was hungry and they kind of took it to us,” coach Ron Wilson said of the first period. “A couple of costly turnovers in the second when we were playing well sealed the deal for us. We coughed up the puck when not really under pressure. We need to learn from that, and we need to make harder, safer plays.”
Reimer often was left on his own and made 35 saves.
“It’s pretty disappointing because other teams were playing and we needed the two points,” Reimer said. “I’m not sure why we came out the way we did. We do need to play a full 60 minutes.
“There’s no sense in losing too much sleep over it because we have a big one coming up on Saturday (when the Leafs will honour Mats Sundin before facing the Montreal Canadiens).”