Short-handed Leafs run out of gas

Maple Leafs goaltender Jonas Gustavsson makes a glove save against the Penguins at the Consol...

Maple Leafs goaltender Jonas Gustavsson makes a glove save against the Penguins at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Penn., March 7, 2012. (JUSTIN K. ALLER/Getty Images/AFP)

ROB LONGLEY, QIM Agency

, Last Updated: 12:19 AM ET

PITTSBURGH - They’re losing bodies.

They’re losing games.

And the more it continues, the Maple Leafs are losing hope on another lost season.

An at-times gallant effort, given all that was stacked against them Wednesday night at the Consol Energy Center, still resulted in a 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins as failed attention to defensive detail conspired to let a 2-0 lead get away.

With two more men down, the weary, shell-shocked Leafs couldn’t withstand the NHL’s hottest team, which stormed back for a seventh consecutive victory.

“There is no more time to be down as a group,” captain Dion Phaneuf said after the Leafs dropped their 12th in 14 and saw the points total (67) match their games played for the first time all season.

“Injuries are part of the game, we can’t use it as an excuse. Guys have to adapt to it. Every team goes through injury problems. Look at (the Penguins). They have one of the top players in the world out and they’re winning games.”

Still, if there is a tendency to feel some empathy for the Leafs it was on this night, 24 hours after they lost the heart of their offence in Joffrey Lupul and another forward, Colby Armstrong, in a physically punishing game to the Boston Bruins.

Against the Penguins, the game wasn’t even 10 minutes old when defenceman Cody Franson (stick to the eye) and Mike Brown (lower body after slamming violently into the end boards) were gone. Both left the game after their first shift leaving the remainder to finish the game on whatever fumes they had remaining.

“I thought we were better from a defensive standpoint in the critical areas, but we ran out of bodies,” said Randy Carlyle, whose record as Leafs coach slipped to 1-2 since replacing Ron Wilson five days earlier.

“It taxes everybody else and then it showed in some of what I would call questionable decisions. That was my message to them: Until we adopt the mentality that we’re going to correct all those little things, the work that they’re putting in, they’re not being rewarded.”

Despite the struggles and the manpower situation, the Leafs came out strong in the second, opening up a 2-0 lead before gradually being worn down. A pair of goals 4:10 into the third gave the Penguins the only lead they would need as there were just enough defensive miscues by the visitors to open the door against one of the NHL’s most dangerous teams.

Apparently having little interest in James Reimer, Carlyle opted to give Jonas Gustavsson a fourth consecutive start and appeared to be on his way to being rewarded for it with a strong early showing. But as has been the case with the Leafs goaltending all season, an untimely soft goal makes big saves like ones Gustavsson made on Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz irrelevant.

This time it was Pascal Dupuis, with his second of the game, on a relatively weak backhand that seemed to go right through Gustavsson for the game winner.

The Leafs came close to tieing it on a late power play but a Tyler Bozak shot bounced off a teammate helping goaltender Brad Thiessen earn his second win in just two starts for the Pens.

With the loss, whatever slim chances the Leafs have of getting to the post season are becoming miniscule, an unimaginable predicament a month ago. With Buffalo’s overtime win over Carolina Wednesday night there was more bad news as 12th-place Toronto remains five points behind eighth-place Winnipeg but there are three teams between them and the Jets.

“It’s been a tough week for these guys,” Carlyle said. “(Keeping the players positive) is part of the coaching staff’s responsibility. You’re going to hear it a lot from me, it’s about the environment we are able to create for them. They’ve got to feel good about their work ethic and I told them so. But again, the mental mistakes are correctable.”

It’s hard to imagine where the bottom is for this Leafs team, but surely they can see it from here. Injuries, mounting losses and stripped of their confidence, it’s starting to feel like the season can’t end soon enough.


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