TORONTO - Up 3-0 after 20 strong minutes of hockey, Saturday's 6-1 shellacking from the Montreal Canadiens well back in the rear-view mirror, the Toronto Maple Leafs seemed to be sitting pretty Monday afternoon.
Then came a bad bounce that led to a goal and a careless boarding penalty by repeat offender Ryan Hollweg in the first three minutes of the second period, and suddenly the St. Louis Blues were back in it.
By the time all was said and done, the Maple Leafs found themselves settling for a single point in the standings after a tough-to-take 5-4 shootout loss, clinging to moral victories after letting an actual victory slip away.
So while there was much to like in the way they played before 19,045 in the rare afternoon affair on Thanksgiving Day at the Air Canada Centre, there was plenty to dislike, too.
"We came out really strong, put them down on their butts and we talked during the first intermission that we have to come out really hard and the first five minutes was important," said Leafs centre Nik Antropov, who collected two assists. "Unfortunately, we get a bad bounce, a penalty for five minutes, and they capitalized on that."
Hollweg, back after serving a two-game suspension for collecting three boarding penalties in a 41-game span, is likely to face more discipline for his hit on Blues rookie defenceman Alex Pietrangelo.
Pietrangelo may have somewhat turned into the hit, but Hollweg won't get the benefit of the doubt from officials with his track record. A fourth boarding major is expected to earn Hollweg an automatic three-game suspension from the NHL, but the immediate impact of his carelessness allowed the Blues to score a pair of power-play goals and tie the game 3-3.
En route to what looked like an easy win, by 5:35 of the second period it was a new hockey game.
"There's a fine line you dance of being aggressive and then completely pulling back and we've got to work with him to find that fine line," said Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "You have to at least limit the damage and we didn't. We allowed them right back into the game at that point."
Niklas Hagman restored a lead for the Leafs at the 14-minute mark of the middle frame but Paul Kariya tied it again at 4:21 of the third, setting up the dramatic finish in the only meeting of the season between these teams both building toward a better tomorrow.
Andy McDonald and Brad Boyes scored in the shootout while Manny Legacy stopped Antropov, was beaten by Nikolai Kulemin and then stoned Pavel Kubina to win it.
"An insignificant player made a poor decision and that's unfortunate for him and for the Leafs, and fortunate for us," Blues coach Andy Murray said of Hollweg. "It shouldn't happen in our game and it happened.
"If it was Keith Tkachuk or Alex Pietrangelo, I wouldn't feel any differently about it. It's unnecessary and certainly the league will deal with it."
Boyes, Tkachuk and Patrik Berglund also scored for the Blues (2-1-0), who were looking for a stronger effort following a 5-2 loss to the New York Islanders on Saturday.
Kulemin, Tomas Kaberle and Alexei Ponikarovsky also scored for the Maple Leafs (1-2-0), who offered up a solid bounce-back effort after looking overmatched against the Habs on Saturday.
"Five-on-five I think we played better than they did," said Hagman. "It's just special teams we've got to get better at."
That is true as the Maple Leafs have now allowed seven short-handed goals in three games and were 0-for-6 on the power play against the Blues, wasting a two-minute, two-man advantage late in the second period.
They were up 4-3 at that point and really could have put the Blues on their heels with another.
"Our power play needs a lot of work, to say the least," said Wilson. "We got stagnant and we had too many guys thinking of scoring instead of moving the puck around."
Added Hagman: "In this league you should score a goal."
The Maple Leafs outshot the Blues 15-3 while building a 3-0 lead in the first period but the visitors came out aggressively to start the second, with Boyes banging in a rebound 33 seconds in after Vesa Toskala robbed McDonald to make it a 3-1 game.
After the Hollweg penalty, Berglund shovelled in a rebound past a prone Toskala at 4:47 while Tkachuk buried a beautiful cross-ice feed from Kariya at 5:35 to make it 3-3
The Blues flurry provided a jolting wake-up call after the dream start the Maple Leafs had in the first period.
Just 3:22 in, Kaberle collected a pretty cross-ice slap pass from Mike Van Ryn and wired it past a prone Legace five seconds after a power play had expired.
Kulemin put them up 2-0 at 14:06 and Ponikarovsky redirected Jason Blake's centring pass from the corner over Legace at 16:10.
"We got lucky we got that five-minute penalty and we potted (two) goals on that power play," said Legace. "It was a great effort by the guys to not give up."
Notes: Hollweg's return to the Leafs lineup sent Matt Stajan to the pressbox, ending the centre's streak of 178 straight games played. Anton Stralman played his first game of the season in place of fellow blue-liner Jonas Frogren, who hurt a foot blocking a shot Saturday. Stralman played over Ian White while Frogren is day-to-day. ... Blues RW Lee Stempniak missed his second straight game after tweaking his left knee during the first period of Friday's 5-2 win over Nashville. LW Dwayne King and D Mike Weaver were also scratched. ... Leafs forward Jamal Mayers faced the Blues for the first time since his trade to Toronto in June. He spent his first 10 NHL seasons in St. Louis.