TORONTO - Coming off a three-day, one-game planes, trains and automobiles road trip, the Maple Leafs needed to light a fire at home.
They did get some sparks from unlikely sources, but it wasn’t enough in Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. The defeat will put them at least 10 points out of a playoff spot when the calendar turns to 2011, a hole from which few teams escape.
The momentum from Sunday’s 4-1 win in New Jersey was sapped when stormy weather forced them to take the long way home.
Arriving back in Toronto on Tuesday morning, the Leafs gave up the first goal and were in catchup mode much of the night. They valiantly put almost 40 shots at Cam Ward, but two penalties in the third sealed their fate.
The evening did produce two power play goals and the possible discovery of a new winger to get the stalled Phil Kessel/Tyler Bozak combo back in gear. Joey Crabb was called up from the Marlies and had an assist, while doing the drudge work that Nazem Kadri has yet to master. With Kadri back in the press box, Crabb was in the vicinity of one Kessel goal and many other chances.
“He’s a skill player who likes to battle down low and he can get to the front of the net,” Bozak praised. “I think he added a component to our line that Phil and I can use.”
This is Crabb’s second stint, after getting an assist in a two-game recall in late November. Whether this lasts beyond Thursday’s game against Columbus is anyone’s guess.
“I felt I made a few good plays and a couple I wish I could have back,” the left winger said.
“Overall, we were working together well. I don’t know what will happen (with the lineup), but it seemed both those guys had a good game and we were getting some chances. I knew what my role would be and obviously they know theirs.”
Wilson said the plan was to put Crabb in anyway, with the Leafs in need of fresh legs. The indication was that Kadri will stay up and be spotted.
“Joey wins battles in the corner, he gets pucks out and forechecks well,” Wilson said. “He made nice patient plays. He has confidence from doing well in the AHL.”
But Kessel’s two and the extension of Mikhail Grabovski’s point streak to a team high six games, were not enough to overcome two Eric Staal goals, one by local hero Jeff Skinner, a rookie, and the winner by Patrick Dwyer at 14:49.
“A couple of cheap penalties (the first of the year to Tomas Kaberle) gave some of our momentum to them,” groused Wilson of the third period. “But I guess things happen and you have to battle through. Lord knows, we’ve had enough adversity the past 40 hours or so. But I thought our team played very well.
“We had a great second period where we absolutely dominated and outchanced them 13-1. We had some bumps in the road in the first period and settled down.”
But the NHL leaderboard continues to look grim.
“We have to start winning some games here,” Kessel said as Toronto fell for the fourth time in five games.
Cam Ward’s 34-save night prevented Toronto from matching its four-goal output against the Devils. Crabb went hard to the net with the Leafs on the power play and showed hustle getting to the bench after he broke his stick, returning to the play as Grabovski tied the game 3-3 entering the third period.
Brett Lebda was employed as a seventh defenceman with some power-play duty and then a sixth when Carl Gunnarsson took a first period puck on the inside of the knee and had a shaky game overall. Wilson said the scratched Tim Brent and two defencemen had a flu bug. Carl Gunnarsson was not seen much after the first period.
Though they had chances, Sunday’s hot line of John Mitchell, Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong were held off the scoresheet. Toronto’s two power-play goals gave it five in its past two home games
It was another opportunity for Jonas Gustavsson to put two solid games together, but partly due to lack of co-operation early on from teammates, he gave up three goals on less than a dozen shots before steadying himself. Wilson had mused about getting James Reimer a start, but is now hazy on a date.
“Someone said he would play (Thursday) but he’s not. The Monster has to get the job done. If I have to play Reimer, I will, but don’t speculate when it’s not fair to him or Jonas.”
The opening 20 minutes produced five combined goals, a season high for a Leafs’ game. The way Toronto plays so stiff with the puck at home, it was hard to tell if the unplanned three-day bus tour through snowy Jersey was the real culprit, but the Leafs were very sloppy in front of Gustavsson.
Players such as Gunnarsson and Mitchell were very loose with the disc and Mitchell’s giveaway was compounded by Kaberle thinking more about offence than his defensive duties as the last man back.
Kessel unloaded a nice one-timer with Carolina two-men short after Skinner’s opening goal. Skinner, a Markham native and surprise Calder Trophy contender, moved a point up on the idle Logan Couture of the Sharks for the rookie scoring lead.
The Canes had lost three one-goal games coming in.