There is about all great teams a thinly-veneered ruthlessness.
Look past the superstars of the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and you see a team that will methodically squeeze the life out of opponents just slightly out of their league.
It’s easy to recognize those teams; just look at the scoreboard.
It took the Blackhawks, now winners of eight straight, to hand the Leafs their first loss in regulation since February 12 by virtue of a tidy 5-3 win.
“That’s a good team playing great,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “They took advantage of our own mistakes. A team like that, you can’t make those kinds of mistakes.”
Two days removed from a stirring 3-2 victory in Philadelphia, the Leafs were nonetheless outworked by a Hawks team playing its third game in four nights. The Blackhawks scored the game’s first three goals on Maple Leaf turnovers, took a shot on the chin when the Leafs replied with a Joffrey Lupul
goal and then scuttled any a chance of a comeback when Keith Aulie fell in the corner and Viktor Stalberg tipped home the Tomas Kopecky shot past Toronto goalie James Reimer
Reimer was by no means the only player to blame. No, he did not deliver the lights-out goaltending that lifted him from the Marlies to the top of the organizational pyramid but in what should have been the highest emotional moment of the season, the Leafs lost their way.
“It’s hard to explain,” said Lupul. “We were very excited in the dressing room. We just got caught trying to do too much.”
The Hawks scored just 1:10 in after a Carl Gunnarsson
pass was picked off and a shot by Marian Hossa dripped through Reimer.
Before the game was five minutes old, Reimer couldn’t stop Michael Frolik’s drive on a two-on one. With about five minutes left, Patrick Kane found Jonathan Toews for a tap-in. Make it 3-0.
“There was that seven to 11 minutes that put us in so much trouble,” said the Leafs’ Tim Brent. “We found out why they are the Stanley Cup champions.”
Lupul’s goal came on an intercepted pass and a drive to the net but ex-Leaf Viktor Stalberg restored the three-goal lead at 4-1. Bryan Bickell scored on yet another tap-in and the Leafs dragged themselves into the dressing room at the second intermission down 5-1.
There is no element in which the Hawks did not outplay the Leafs, the league’s youngest team. Excellent defensive positioning meant the Leaf forwards seemed to be playing in each other’s pockets. Every botched pinch prompted a surgical counter. Carl Gunnarsson
, Dion Phaneuf
and Aulie struggled mightily and a slew of promising shots seemed to dribble off Toronto sticks. Wilson was also displeased with the line of Tyler Bozak
(minus -2) Lupul (minus-1) and Phil Kessel
In the end, it was a nice professional job even if Joey Crabb
did dampen things a bit by putting a bouncing puck past Chicago netminder Corey Crawford in the third. By then Reimer was out of the game, beaten five times on 19 shots.
“We’ve been on a real roll lately,” said Reimer. “We can look at this as a bump in the road.”
A penalty shot was awarded to Mikhail Grabovski
just six minutes into the third but Crawford mustered a pad save. A last-minute goal from Luke Schenn
made the final 5-3.
The Leafs remain four points out of eighth with 16 games to play and travel to play the New York Islanders Tuesday before giving the Flyers another crack on Thursday.
“It would be idiotic,” Wilson said, “to think we were going to win every game. We just have to learn our lessons and move on.”
What happened Saturday can be corrected of course and an optimist would argue that what the boys on Bay Street call a market correction was in order.
Maybe it was. There is something to be said for seeing up close the kind of team you want to be. It’s a little less fun when they punch you in the teeth while you’re watching.