Johnston on Leafs: Path all too familiar

Pittsburgh Penguins' Pascal Dupuis (centre) celebrates his game tying goal after scoring Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Ben Scrivens (left) during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Thursday March 14, 2013.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO – The veteran players on the Toronto Maple Leafs have repeatedly insisted that this year’s team bears no resemblance to the one that collapsed down the stretch a year ago.

Now they have a chance to prove it.

There was a familiar quality to Thursday’s 3-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins — at least for anyone who has followed the Leafs closely the past few years. After playing a successful tight-checking style against the league’s most dynamic offence for more than 50 minutes, a couple blown defensive coverages quickly turned a potential victory into Toronto’s fourth straight defeat.

It was as painful as it was preventable.

“Those are mistakes you have to learn from,” said defenceman Cody Franson. “Last year was something that should never happen again. We’ve matured a long way from where we were last year — sure we’ve lost a couple in a row, but the feeling in this room is nowhere near the same.

“We kind of gave this one away in the last few minutes tonight and we know that. It’s just a matter of learning and moving forward.”

For those in need of a quick refresher: Toronto won just 10 of 33 games after the all-star break last year to tumble from a playoff position to falling short of the post-season by 12 points.

That stretch saw Randy Carlyle replace Ron Wilson as coach and brought a different tenor to the first half of this shortened campaign, especially with Carlyle’s favoured rough-and-tumble style bringing some success coming out of the lockout.

It’s been derailed over the last week during a tough patch of schedule that included two games against Pittsburgh and another against Boston sandwiched around a visit to Winnipeg.

The Leafs came away with one of a possible eight points during that stretch.

But all was not lost, far from it.

Carlyle didn’t have to look very hard at Thursday’s loss to find positives and believes his team will find success against the Jets on Saturday if it can replicate the way it played for the first two and a half periods. However, the ending is the part that can’t be repeated.

“It’s not all doom and gloom, but it’s doom and gloom when you lose the way we lost,” said Carlyle. “It tears at your fabric, at your heart, because we’re finding a way to lose a game instead of finding a way to win a game.”

Everything came unraveled quickly — and it wasn’t a coincidence that it happened with the best player in the world on the ice.

Pascal Dupuis tied the game 1-1 at 12:42 of the third period after taking a ridiculous no-look, around-the-back pass from Sidney Crosby. That play started with Leafs defenceman Korbinian Holzer turning the puck over to Chris Kunitz in the corner.

The winning goal was even more preventable.

Pittsburgh came up ice on a 3-on-4 rush that saw Dupuis go uncovered in the high slot before he roofed a shot past Ben Scrivens with less than three minutes to play in regulation. Soon after, a short-handed goal into an empty net sealed it.

The Toronto players couldn’t help but wonder what might have been.

“It’s no secret that Pittsburgh’s good,” said Franson. “They’ve got enough skill and enough speed and size in that lineup that they’re never out of a game.”

While it might be a tad unfair to connect this losing streak to what happened a year ago, the question is clearly hovering over the team. Fourteen players who dressed on Thursday night were part of the squad last season.

“We’ve got a whole new group here,” said forward Tyler Bozak. “I don’t think we’re really thinking about last year at all or anything to do with that. It’s a couple games here – I don’t think it’s time to lose our minds.

“There’s still a lot of season left.”

Added Carlyle: “I know they’re not feeling good — they’re upset with themselves and they’re frustrated, all those things. It’s about regrouping and getting ready for Winnipeg. We can’t change what happened, but we can sure to try to make an imprint on what’s going to happen on Saturday.”

If everything goes to plan, it will be an important lesson heading into the final six weeks of the season.

For those interested in history, the Leafs are now slightly behind the pace they set through 28 games last season (15-12-1 now compared with 15-10-3 a year ago) — although the shortened season has put them in playoff position later in the schedule than they were in 2012-13.

Either way, it’s impossible to ignore that the games are getting tighter and the margin for error is slimmer.

“You learn from what we did in this situation last year,” said Franson. “Regardless of the feeling after a game, you have to be able to analyze it, move forward and not dwell on things. Especially with the shortened schedule, we’re going to be back on the saddle right away here.”