TORONTO — Past the halfway point of the season and with their bye week behind them, the Toronto Maple Leafs have their eyes on the playoffs. The problem is that they can’t finish teams off in the final few minutes of a game.
Vince Dunn scored 1:43 into overtime to lead the St. Louis Blues past Toronto 2-1 on Tuesday. The loss wasted an impressive effort by Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen, who made 40 saves and was less than a minute away from a shutout.
"Sometimes it goes that way but you want to keep learning from it and keep moving forward. That’s the only thing we can do now," said Andersen. "We’re going to go through stretches like this in a season, but I thought we’ve been good at closing out games early in the year and I think we’ve got to get back to being solid like that."
It was the Maple Leafs’ first game back after the six-day bye week. Their last game was a 4-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Jan. 10 and before that they gave up a two-goal lead in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Jan. 8.
"Obviously, it’s not good, we’re not happy with it," said Mitch Marner, who had four takeaways on the night but was on the ice for Dunn’s winner. "But we played a tight game. Just some unfortunate bounces there."
Winless in three and with five losses in its past eight games, Toronto has dropped to third in the Atlantic Division. Its playoff spot is still solid with the Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers and Montreal Canadiens 11, 12 and 12 points behind them, respectively.
"It’s getting kind of playoff time and teams are tightening up and getting ready for that," said Marner. "It’s a lot different than the start of the season. There’s no space and you’ve got to adjust for that."
Head coach Mike Babcock hopes his young team can learn from its mistakes before that lead over Detroit, Florida and Montreal dwindles away.
"It’s simple, life’s about lessons," said Babcock. "Suck it up and find a way to win games. You come to the rink, you need two points. You don’t need one, you need two."
Alex Steen tied it in the final minute of the third period for the Blues (27-17-3) and Carter Hutton stopped 30 shots for the win. Connor Brown had a short-handed breakaway goal for Toronto (25-17-4) near the midway point of the third.
St. Louis dominated play in the first period, with the Maple Leafs struggling to connect passes. Toronto’s best chances came with Blues forward Kyle Brodziak in the penalty box for slashing, but the Leafs only had a few serious shots on net with the man advantage. By the end of the first St. Louis had outshot Toronto 14-7.
"We got a point and played a real good team," said Babcock. "I thought it was a real good hockey game. They were too quick for us in the first. I thought we played better as the game went on."
The biggest play of the opening 20 minutes came when Leafs forward Matt Martin squared up Brodziak behind the St. Louis net and crushed him with a body check. Blues tough guy Chris Thorburn came to Brodziak’s defence, fighting Martin while LL Cool J’s classic "Momma Said Knock You Out" played.
Andersen kept the Leafs in the game through the first two periods, including stopping Thorburn on a breakaway with about nine minutes left in the second. Play opened up in the period, but the score remained locked at 0-0. Shots were 26-19 in favour of the Blues after 40 minutes.
In the third, Andersen again stymied Thorburn, sliding post-to-post on a wraparound attempt and getting a pad on the puck before then covering up the rebound in the first four minutes of play.
Brown finally opened the scoring shortly after, outracing Alex Pietrangelo to the puck after the Blues captain mishandled a pass at the blue line. Skating in alone, Brown snapped the puck past Hutton for a short-handed goal as the 18,951 in attendance at Air Canada Centre cheered on.
"I got a nice little bounce through Pietrangelo’s legs there to kind of spring me loose, just got a nice little partial break there and tried to put it up top," said Brown.
St. Louis coach Mike Yeo pulled Hutton for an extra attacker with less than 90 seconds left in the third. That paid off as Steen backhanded a Pietrangelo rebound past Andersen with 57 seconds left to set up overtime.