TORONTO - After the high-speed action series, followed by a dreary soap opera, we now return you to regularly scheduled Maple Leafs programming.
Wednesday night’s 5-4 shootout loss in Washington is reality TV as far as the 2010-11 Leafs go, now at 5-5-2 and back to skating a fine line between playoff contention and a lottery pick in the draft.
They aren’t as good as their 4-0 start, nor as defensively shabby and offensively weak as their current four-game winless skein.
The long night against the Caps included a good first period and 1-0 lead, a five-minute brain freeze by young and old Leafs alike, a remarkable recovery to make a game of it before blowing a lead, still managing to get out with a point. Coach Ron Wilson’s post-game comments ran the gamut from disgust at their middle-period muddle to praise for a road rally in one of the NHL’s toughest barns.
“This is the way we have to play,” winger Fredrik Sjostrom said of the final 25 minutes of the Caps’ game. “We’re hungry and we’re battling all over. We’re a good skating team, but if we’re not moving our feet, we’re not of much use.
“For four games at the start we were desperate all over the ice. We still have something to prove. We will take the good stuff from this game, but there are still a few things we have to get better at.”
They certainly kept things interesting on Wednesday, their first test without captain Dion Phaneuf, who joined abrasive winger Colby Armstrong on a month-long injured list.
On the second night of a back-to-back, they did hold NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin to zero even-strength points, but blew a chance to win in regulation, in overtime and finally in the shootout. But counting Tuesday against Ottawa, the Leafs now have five third-period goals after coming close to setting a franchise record for scoring futility.
“We know what we have to do here and that’s come to play in the first or second periods,” said winger Kris Versteeg, “not give the game away and not having to fight back. We really haven’t done that the past four or five games and it’s really nipped us in the butt.
“Tonight there were a lot of gutsy performances like Mike Komisarek (taking Phaneuf’s minutes) and a lot of guys playing more because of injuries. We know we’re capable of doing it. (Errors) can be corrected and we’ll talk about it the next couple of days and be ready for Saturday (against Buffalo).”
Ah, the Sabres. It’s true they’re sitting near the bottom of the conference and there is talk — again — that Lindy Ruff’s days as coach are numbered. But whenever Ryan Miller is introduced in the starting lineup of a Buffalo-Toronto game, it usually ends badly for the blue and white.
Miller’s record is 22-8 against the Leafs, his most against any NHL opponent, the wins divided perfectly even between the Air Canada Centre and the HSBC Arena. He has an overall save percentage of .930 against them and a 2.23 goals-against average, a good foundation for another run at the Vezina Trophy.
Of course. the Leafs must get past the Sabres’ forwards and defence before they worry about Miller.
“We have to be persistent about getting hits,” Sjostrom said of treating all future foes equally. “It doesn’t have to be a big slamming hit, just rub guys out and get on their top players.”
A few Leafs came in from the cold on Wednesday to score on NHL rookie-of-the-month Michal Neuvirth of the Caps. Nikolai Kulemin had one of his prettiest goals as a Leaf, Tyler Bozak and Versteeg picked up their first markers since the second game of the schedule and the defence added four assists.
“It’s really good to have guys score other than Phil Kessel and Clarke MacArthur,” noted Francois Beauchemin.
“Hopefully, they keep it going. Four goals a game gives us a chance to win every night.”