Little hope in Leafs' loss to Sabres

Buffalo Sabres' Ryan Miller prepares for a shot on a breakaway by Toronto Maple Leafs' Nikolai...

Buffalo Sabres' Ryan Miller prepares for a shot on a breakaway by Toronto Maple Leafs' Nikolai Kulemin. (REUTERS/Gary Wiepert)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 8:48 AM ET

BUFFALO - Phil Kessel is still in Ron Wilson’s dog house, but the real house of horrors for the Maple Leafs has become the penalty box.

The Leafs aren’t only sinking in the Eastern Conference playoff race, but the ball and chain dragging them further is their penalty killing, which likely cost them a badly needed point last night in a 3-2 loss at HSBC Arena.

On one hand, the Leafs ignored coach Wilson’s loud edict from the day before to get their act in gear before falling behind by a goal or two, but on the other, they nearly did the impossible and clawed back from a three-goal deficit against their nemesis, Ryan Miller.

The door to freedom was sitting there for Kessel with just over a minute to play, but his sweep at a puck with Miller out of position was partially blocked. Thus, he’s up to 11 games with just one goal 13 with no assists, while Toronto’s current freefall reached four losses in five games and 3-7-2 in their past 12. Miller, meanwhile, made a career best 49 saves and improved to 5-0 against the Leafs this season, part of 22 in his career .

After missing a golden opportunity to break Miller’s hex with three of its own wasted man power plays, Toronto gave up three goals on consecutive Sabre advantages. No wonder Ian White argued so vehemently in the second period when called on a borderline hook. That ended up being the winning goal by Tyler Myers, after third period markers from Matt Stajan and John Mitchell revived the Leafs and their hardy band of supporters who’d made the wintry drive.

“It’s getting kind of crazy and I don’t know what the reason is,” White said of the Leafs’ league-worst penalty kill. “It’s got to be mental at this stage. Three-for-three...we get out there and we’re a little anxious and tentative. You’re usually playing against the top five guys on the other team and if you’re a step behind, they’ll make you pay.”

The Leafs continue to close in on the record for the worst penalty killing collective since the Original Six expanded. With a terrible 68.3% mark, they’re just ahead of the 1982-83 Los Angeles Kings and from there, it’s a short drop to the basement, the ‘79-80 Kings, who came in at 67.7%.

It was the first time the Leafs had allowed three power play goals in consecutive games since December of 2005 after the Flyers lit them up Wednesday.

After his Thursday rant made the front pages of Toronto newspapers, Wilson spared the rod after the game.

“We gave it everything we had and out-chanced them at the end probably two to one,” Wilson said. “Once we scored (Stajan at 2:11 of the third), you could see the energy go through the team. I was ready to pull (Vesa Toskala) with threee and half or maybe four minutes to go because we had them hemmed in and a team might panic at that point. We scored again and still had 1:43 with an empty net.

“But our penalty killing let us down again. It would just be one little thing and boom, it’s in your net. Right now, it’s all we talk about and we’re a little psyched out. We had two back door plays and our defence never bothered to look.”

Defenceman Jeff Finger was on for all three Buffalo goals, two by Tyler Myers and the other by Tim Connolly.

The Leafs complete the difficult back-to-back assignment Saturday at home against Pittsburgh, where their lone consolation is beating the Stanley Cup champions in their barn on Dec. 27 the night after an overtime loss to Montreal.

Toronto couldn’t have asked for a better start last evening, with the Sabres called three straight times in the game’s opening 12 minutes, including a slightly rattled Miller slapping an encroaching Stajan with his trapper. Yet their 17-7 advantage in shots yielded nothing.

Wilson had pointed to the multiple goals by Ian White and Viktor Stalberg as the route to success against Miller, either getting traffic in front or taking a Sabre defenceman to the net and hoping for a favourable deflection. Stajan’s goal came with him in Miller’s kitchen, deflecting a Luke Schenn drive.

Buffalo, now riding a six-game winning streak that sees them taking the Northeast Division away from pre-season favourite Boston, struck twice during a four-minute highsticking call on Rickard Wallin that drew blood from Connolly’s face. Myers came one goal shy of being the first Sabre defenceman to get a hat trick since Phil Housley in 1988.

“Vesa got stuck a couple of times moving side to side on the penalty kill, but 5-on-5, he made some big saves,” Wilson said of his 28 stops.

But it ended up being the Leafs’ 30th loss in 45 games.

“It was one of those nights,” Mitchell said, “but again, we have to find a way to get past ‘one of those nights’. We have a game right away (Saturday) so maybe we can redeem ourselves.”


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