Toronto scores last six goals; Meltdown in third costly for Penguins
Sergei Gonchar's return to the lineup was the highlight for the Penguins in an otherwise dismal night in Toronto.
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TORONTO -- For days, Sergei Gonchar told anyone who would listen that he was a guy coming off major shoulder surgery and an eight-month layoff, not a just-add-ice savior for the Penguins' season.
And he was right.
And, at least on this night, there was no reason he had to be.
Not when the Penguins grabbed a two-goal lead against an opponent that will contend for nothing but a lottery pick in the entry draft over the final two months of this season. Not when a couple of points that could have meant so much to the Penguins' playoff prospects were in their grasp.
But presented with an opportunity to earn their fourth victory in the past five games and climb to within three points of seventh place in the Eastern Conference, the Penguins opted to utterly unravel during the final 40 minutes of what became a 6-2 loss to Toronto at the Air Canada Centre.
"We just fell apart," center Sidney Crosby said.
Specifically, they allowed the Maple Leafs to score six unanswered goals -- five during the final period -- to not only undermine all the Penguins had achieved with an inspired 2-1 victory against San Jose three nights earlier, but to sabotage their chances of catching up with Buffalo and Florida, which are tied for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
Of course, considering that the Penguins are 1-7-1 on the road in 2009, perhaps the outcome wasn't as surprising as it seemed at first blush.
"We're timid," coach Michel Therrien said. "We don't skate as well on the road as we do at home. We're not jumping on loose pucks like we do at home. We're going to have to start to battle a lot harder on the road."
Faring a bit better against Toronto would have helped, too. When the Penguins are doing the postmortems on the 2008-09 season, their 1-3 record against the Maple Leafs should get lots of attention.
"They seem to be the elixir for us," Toronto coach Ron Wilson said.
True enough, but none of the other 24 defeats the Penguins have absorbed this season, including the other two to the Leafs, stung as badly or was as potentially devastating as this one because the Penguins no longer have the luxury of donating points to other teams.
"I don't know when we're going to learn, but we have to learn quick, because every point is very important, and we need them," Gonchar said.
"There isn't that much time left. We have to focus on every single point, and every single turnover could cost us the season."
If they haven't already, that is.
Perhaps the only encouraging thing for the Penguins was that Gonchar logged 20 minutes and one second of ice time (15:38 of it at even-strength and most of the rest on the power play) with no apparent difficulty.
Left winger Ruslan Fedotenko, who returned after missing 15 games because of a broken right hand, began the game as a fourth-liner but, by the first intermission, had earned a spot with Tyler Kennedy on Crosby's line, and spent much of the evening there.
Matt Cooke gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead 83 seconds after the opening faceoff and Bill Thomas added a short-handed goal at 8:34 of the first to put them up by two.
But, while the Penguins controlled play for much of the first period, Toronto dominated the second, as evidenced by its 14-5 edge in shots.
Nik Antropov made it 2-1 when he knocked a puck out of the air and past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury from in front of the net at 12:53 of the second on Toronto's 24th shot.
"Their goalie was standing on his head," Wilson said.
Rather than regrouping for the start of the third period, however, the Penguins imploded. And wasted no time doing it.
Jason Blake tied the score 55 seconds into the period by shoveling in a backhander from in front, then put the Maple Leafs ahead to stay 19 seconds later after a giveaway by the Penguins.
John Mitchell scored from in front at 7:13 to make it 4-2, and Alexei Ponikarovsky jammed in another point-blank goal at 13:18.The one Matt Stajan added at 15:51 did nothing but rub it in a bit.
"We got a great start to the period," Wilson said, "and just coasted in."
And, in the process, left deep tread marks on the Penguins. The kind that might be permanent.
"We can't change it now," Crosby said. "There's nothing we can do but try to erase that one and move on."
First Published February 15, 2009 12:01 am