Opportunity Lost

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Dec. 17) – Late yesterday afternoon, I posted a blog here looking ahead at the Maple Leafs game in Pittsburgh a few hours later. “IF SKATING, LEAFS WILL DEFEAT PENGUINS” insisted the headline. Turns out I was wrong… or maybe half-right. Leafs did skate but did not prevail on the scoreboard.

Why?

Why else?

Sidney Crosby scores against the Maple Leafs in his sleep. When wide awake, he is particularly lethal, as proven again last night. Crosby’s 19th goal of the season – a one-timer from the slot through a partial screen with 6:03 left in regulation – held up as the game winner in a 3-1 Pittsburgh triumph. Though Leafs played effectively after the first period, they were not crafty enough to take advantage of a skeletal Penguins’ line-up missing its top four defenseman and superstar Evgeni Malkin. If Leafs should fail to qualify for the playoffs by a point or two, the club will look back at this game as a prime factor. 

SIDNEY CROSBY’S SHOT SNEAKS PAST JONATHAN BERNIER AT 13:57 OF THE THIRD PERIOD MONDAY NIGHT, BREAKING A 1-1 TIE, AND LIFTING PITTSBURGH PENGUINS TO VICTORY OVER THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS. SPORTSNET IMAGE

Leafs had an excellent chance to tie the score in the final minute, with Chris Kunitz of the Penguins off for tripping Nazem Kadri and Jonathan Bernier on the bench for a extra attacker. Randy Carlyle called time out after the penalty but it’s difficult to comprehend he and assistant coach Dave Farrish drawing up the plan that was executed. In the industry, it is called “poor puck management” and Leafs were guilty twice:

WITH 45.9 SECONDS LEFT, MAPLE LEAFS DEFENSEMAN CODY FRANSON – FLANKED BY THREE TEAMMATES (TOP-LEFT) – DECIDED TO MAKE A 100-FOOT STRETCH PASS TO JAMES van RIEMSDYK, STATIONARY AT THE PENGUINS BLUE LINE (TOP-RIGHT) AND ALL FOUR PITTSBURGH SKATERS IN FAIRLY CLOSE PROXIMITY…

REALIZING HE HAD NO PLAY, van RIEMSDYK (TOP-LEFT) SHOT THE PUCK INTO THE CORNER, BUT HE DID IT TOO SOFTLY. SURROUNDED BY TEAMMATES (TOP-RIGHT), MARC-ANDRE FLEURY EASILY CORRALED THE PUCK BEHIND THE NET…

FLEURY LEFT THE PUCK FOR ROOKIE OLLI MAATTA, WHO FIRED IT AROUND THE BOARDS (TOP-LEFT) AND PAST DION PHANEUF AT THE POINT (TOP-RIGHT)…

NINE SECONDS LATER, FRANSON HAD FULL CONTROL OF THE PUCK AT CENTER-ICE WITH THREE TEAMMATES TO HIS RIGHT AND ANOTHER STANDING AT THE BLUE LINE. INSTEAD OF DISHING IT OFF OR MANEUVERING THE PUCK INTO PENGUINS’ TERRITORY, FRANSON AGAIN FIRED IT INTO THE CORNER TO FLEURY’S RIGHT. AGAIN, THE PITTSBURGH GOALIE WAS ABLE TO CONTROL THE PUCK FOR MAATTA, WHO BLASTED IT BEYOND PHANEUF (DESPITE A GOOD EFFORT BY THE LEAFS CAPTAIN TO KNOCK IT DOWN WITH HIS STICK). BRANDON SUTTER ICED THE GAME WITH AN EMPTY NET GOAL. SPORTSNET IMAGES

There is a time to cycle the puck and a time to carry the puck. Leafs spent the night doing the former and trying to out-fox the greenhorn Pittsburgh defensemen. Under no circumstance should that strategy have prevailed in the final minute, with Leafs owning a six-on-four skating advantage. If the coaching staff insisted on such a design, Carlyle and Farrish have some explaining to do. If Franson twice chose to abandon the puck, he needs to tell Carlyle and Farrish exactly why.

Either way, Leafs coughed up a golden opportunity.

In five games against elite (or quasi-elite) competition over nine nights, Toronto earned just two points – availing itself of horrible Chicago goaltending on Saturday. The club is now 7-11-3 in its past 21 games with no apparent capacity (or willingness) to build on momentum.

Next up: Florida Panthers, tonight, at Air Canada Centre.

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