ST. PAUL, Minn. – About the only thing you can count on with the Toronto Maple Leafs is that nothing will come easily.
They were five minutes from stealing a victory against the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday until a ghastly Phil Kessel turnover became the tying goal and ultimately a 2-1 shootout loss. Making matters worse was the fact the Leafs had just finished killing off nine minutes in penalties in the third period – five of which were given to Nazem Kadri for a borderline hit, his second of the game, which will almost certainly result in him being suspended and leave the team down its top three centres.
The most obvious concern as the Leafs moved on to Buffalo for a home-and-home with the shaken-up Sabres was the fallout for Kadri. He received a minor penalty after crashing into Niklas Backstrom and knocking the goaltender out of the game in the first period. The consequences were more severe when he later hammered Mikael Granlund and was tagged with a match penalty to go with an ejection.
By definition, the match penalty signaled that referees Dan O’Halloran and Trent Knorr believed Kadri intended to injure Granlund – a notion Leafs coach Randy Carlyle objected to.
"It’s beyond me the five-minute major," he said. "I just looked at it. (Kadri) made initial contact with the shoulder and the kid had the head down. (Kadri) didn’t have his arms up and he ran into the player and Granlund snapped his head back.
"Obviously the referees saw it differently and obviously when it’s a five-minute match penalty it’ll be reviewed (by the league)."
The Leafs next game will be played in Buffalo on Friday night, which doesn’t leave NHL sheriff Brendan Shanahan much time to make a ruling. With two incidents to consider – an analyst on the Wild’s TV broadcast wryly noted that Kadri "is becoming a repeat offender in the same game" – it is a pretty unique case for the department of player safety.
Assuming that the 23-year-old earns his first career suspension, Carlyle will have to get even more creative with his lineup. The injuries to Tyler Bozak and David Bolland have already forced him to move James van Riemsdyk to the middle while having Jay McClement and the recently signed Jerred Smithson take as many faceoffs as possible.
However, despite this being the most Leaf-like of games, it was not all doom and gloom as the team packed up its gear at Xcel Energy Center.
For starters, Toronto managed to earn a point against a red-hot opponent to keep itself in the Eastern Conference playoff picture with the schedule approaching the quarter mark. The Leafs also received another stellar goaltending performance with 33 saves from Jonathan Bernier.
In fact, he looked poised to record a fourth shutout in just seven starts against Minnesota when the Leafs killed off Kadri’s major penalty at 13:41 of the third period. Toronto surrendered just one shot during that five-minute disadvantage and the boos started to rain down with the visitors still ahead 1-0 at that point. It should have been a momentum-booster.
"I thought we did an unbelievable job on that PK," said Bernier.
The good work was quickly undone. Kessel was skating out of the defensive zone when he sent a soft pass up the middle that was promptly intercepted by Charlie Coyle. The Wild forward started the puck back in the opposite direction and it soon pinballed in off Zach Parise.
"We turned it over," said Carlyle. "When you have control of the puck in those areas you’ve got to skate it and clear it and make sure you’re real safe with it."
If anything, that lack of crispness basically summed up the Leafs' effort overall. This is still a team that needs to prove it can make smart decisions when nursing a lead in tight games like this one.
The margin for error has been especially tight with Toronto scoring just three goals in its last three games. Were it not for consistently good goaltending performances, the team would be on a three-game losing streak rather than a stretch where it has been 1-1-1.
"We haven’t generated a lot over the last few games, but at the end of the day you just stick to your fundamentals," said winger Mason Raymond. "I think that’s getting pucks to the net, traffic. Goalies aren’t going to stop pucks that they can’t see.
"(We need) a little more willingness to get there, a little bit more dig from everybody, and that comes from within."
It was no coincidence that Raymond’s second-period goal came with him standing at the edge of Josh Harding’s crease. However, not enough of his teammates followed suit in a game where Toronto could have used more bodies in front of the net and more pucks directed at it.
As a result, it was another up-and-down night.
"I think we can play a lot better," said captain Dion Phaneuf.