In an already disastrous season in which the Maple Leafs’ fortunes couldn’t seem to get any worse, the team hit a new low on Thursday night.
Not so much in terms of the extension of their losing streak to eight games, or even the 1-8-1 mark compiled under interim bench boss Peter Horachek, the worst ten-game stretch to the start of a coaching stint in franchise history.
No, the new nadir is measured by the emotional drain sustained after Jonathan Bernier whiffed on a shot from Arizona defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson all the way from the Coyotes blue line, just five seconds into the third period. Many patrons were just getting back to their seats at the end of the second intermission only to realize that they had missed witnessing history.
With Arizona killing a penalty, the goal was the fastest-ever shorthanded goal to start a period in the NHL. As the puck landed behind a stunned, hapless Bernier, tying the game at 1-1, the energy on the Leafs bench and in the capacity-filled Air Canada Centre deflated faster than a Tom Brady football.
The inexplicable gaffe brought back not-so-fond memories and inevitable comparisons to Vesa Toskala’s infamous goal surrendered to New York Islanders defenceman Rob Davison on March 18, 2008. YouTube has forever preserved the rolling puck that travelled nearly 200 feet and eluded the Finnish netminder, forever cementing the play as one of the all-time greatest hockey blunders.
Bernier, of course, never recovered. Just three minutes, 42 seconds later, Martin Hanzal scored from a terrible angle, almost even with the goal line, and snuck the puck just above Bernier’s right pad for what turned out to be the game-winner.
The performance marred what had been a solid appearance for Bernier over the first forty minutes of the game. He had been nothing short of exceptional in the second period making 21 saves, staving off a four-minute power play when Jake Gardiner was called for a high-sticking double-minor.
“I didn’t see it, I lost it in stands and it just dipped in front of me,” Bernier said of the goal that’s now headed for every blooper reel in the country. “We played pretty good tonight but we can’t give up two bad goals and hope to win.”
The game started optimistically for Toronto when Phil Kessel took a pass from James van Riemsdyk and sniped a shot that barely squeaked through Mike Smith’s five-hole for his 20th goal of the season. It was also Kessel’s first even-strength goal since December 16 versus Anaheim.
While the Leafs output remained dormant, Bernier had been giving his team an opportunity to take two points. But the putrid Coyotes goals put an end to that notion.
Arizona also scored on a late power play after David Clarkson took what has become a characteristically selfish penalty late in regulation time. The Leafs never seem to kill those particular infractions, and on this night, Coyotes forward Sam Gagner was the beneficiary, getting the insurance marker.
“We’re struggling. I think we had some chances,” Kessel said. “You’re up 1-0, you’ve got to find a way to get that second one. We just weren’t able to find it tonight. It’s tough.”
The only thing missing from the Thursday outing was a disgusted fan tossing a Leafs sweater on the ice.
Perhaps people are no longer buying them.
van Riemsdyk Bozak-Kessel
Follow TMLfans.ca on Twitter: @Rob_DelMundo