The Toronto Maple Leafs have been one of the NHL’s better teams – through forty minutes of play.
But the young, maturing roster’s inability to preserve the lead was once again display on Saturday night, this time at Chicago’s United Center. Nursing a seemingly comfortable two-goal advantage late in regulation, the Leafs watched as the Blackhawks rallied to not only tie the game, but steal the extra point and prevail 5-4 in the shootout.
Adding insult to injury, the tying goal was netted by ex-Leaf Richard Panik, who now leads the league with six goals on the season.
“I thought we made two mistakes down the stretch, I didn’t think we were on our heels at all,” coach Mike Babcock said in his post-game address. “We’ve managed to get points on the road, we could have won every game we’ve played in. We’ve got to find a way to put away the other team, for sure, especially in a situation like tonight.”
Indeed, all of Toronto’s defeats this year have come on the road, and the team has had a third-period lead in every game. The Leafs fell to 1-1-3 on the season.
After Artem Anismiov opened the scoring, the Leafs evened the score late in the period when Tyler Bozak deflected Jake Gardiner’s point shot for his first goal of the year.
Toronto took the lead in the second period courtesy of a rifle shot by William Nylander past Chicago goalie Scott Darling on the power play. Tyler Motte evened the score by pouncing on a rebound surrendered by Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen. Not to be outdone, James van Riemsdyk capitalized on a loose rebound in front of the Blackhawks’ net to restore the lead.
The Leafs appeared to be comfortable when Nylander potted his second goal of the night in the third period. On the play, Auston Matthews used a huge burst of speed to elude the defenders down the left wing, then shot the puck towards Darling who made the initial save, but kicked the rebound out to Nylander for the goal.
But the eventual collapse started with the Andersen’s lack of rebound control on Anisimov’s second goal of the night, with 2:28 left in regulation. Panik forced overtime by finding the puck among a logjam of bodies in front of the goal crease, exactly one minute later.
Artemi Panarin fired the shootout winner, negating an equalizer from Matthews one round earlier.
“It’s just a matter of getting that mindset and keeping that same mindset throughout the game and playing the same way no matter what the score is,” van Riemsdyk said. “That comes with some experience as well, too. We’ll continue to get better. It’s hard enough getting into those positions to have those leads, so we’re doing a lot of things right. It’s just a matter of finding ways to finish out games.”