The NHL didn't allow the Penguins to handpick their opponent last night.
Given the choice, though, they likely would have selected a club that had lost nine consecutive road games. Whose attitude toward defensive play usually borders on benign neglect. That is prone to self-immolation in pressure situations.
A team, in short, exactly like Toronto.
The same Maple Leafs who ran off four unanswered goals in the third period of what became a 5-2 victory before a standing-room crowd of 17,051 at Mellon Arena.
The loss ended the Penguins' three-game winning streak, dropped their record to 5-4 and, from coach Michel Therrien's perspective, was a pretty fair return on their performance.
"We lost tonight because, first of all, we didn't execute," he said. "We made a lot of mistakes with the puck and we didn't compete. You put all those things together, and you're not going to win many games."
Even against a team that was 1-2-2 in its previous five games and entered the evening with a goals-against average of 3.99, second-highest in the NHL.
The Maple Leafs had been outscored, 17-9, during the third period of their first 10 games but didn't give up any in the final 20 minutes last night until the outcome was decided.
"I don't think they surprised us," Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. "We just didn't play our best third period."
Or anything resembling a good one, for that matter.
Penguins center Maxime Talbot left the game with what team officials described as "a sore neck" after slamming face-first into the boards behind the Toronto net with 58.3 seconds left in the opening period.
Sidney Crosby got the only goal of the first when he outfought Toronto goalie Vesa Toskala and two defensemen in the crease to jam in a loose puck for his third of the season -- all against the Maple Leafs.
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury made several spectacular stops during the first half of the game -- like when he threw out his right leg to deny Chad Kilger on a two-on-one break -- but couldn't prevent Alexander Steen from tying the score at 10:18 of the second, when he backhanded in a rebound of a Nik Antropov shot.
It was the first goal allowed by Fleury in 136 minutes, 33 seconds. It was far from the last of the evening, though, as Toronto scored twice in 35 seconds early in the third period to seize control of the game.
Jiri Tlusty, making his NHL debut, put the Maple Leafs in front to stay when he deflected a Steen shot over Fleury's left shoulder at 1:45, then rushed the puck down the left side before beating him in the same place at 2:20.
"I love the way we turned on the jets in the third period," Steen said.
The Maple Leafs withstood a brief surge by the Penguins, then put the game away with two goals in a 33-second span midway through the period. Tomas Kaberle scored during a power play at 10:02 and Boyd Devereaux exploited a Penguins giveaway at 10:35 to put Toronto up by four.
"We made some mistakes," Crosby said. "We gave them the opportunities they had."
Gonchar finally ended the Maple Leafs' surge with a five-on-three power-play goal at 14:51, but that did nothing to salve the sting of losing a game the Penguins fully expected to win.
"I was really surprised [by the Penguins' performance]," Therrien said. "This is a game we're not [supposed] to lose."
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published October 26, 2007 4:00 AM