CALGARY – The third period did them in, swiftly and loudly.
Classic rock thundered, plumes of hot, machine-generated flames burst out from the sides of the Jumbotron, and the walls crumbled.
The Toronto Maple Leafs had amounted a 2-1 edge over what captain John Tavares rightly called “one of the hottest teams in the league” Thursday night at the Scotiabank Saddledome and appeared poised to leave Calgary with an opportunity to complete the perfect road trip and assert themselves as a club on a mission.
The Leafs had started on time, composed themselves when the Calgary Flames responded to Tavares’s opening strike, regained the lead when Mitch Marner scored his first in 40 days, then walked out of the dressing room following the second intermission to face a different kind of beast.
One more ready and willing. Hungry to feast on weakness.
In a span of two minutes and 49 seconds, the revived Johnny Gaudreau struck twice and Michael Frolik once, to reverse the night’s narrative and snatch a hard-earned 4-2 come-from-behind victory, their seventh in a row under interim coach Geoff Ward.
Gaudreau’s first was the result of a poor clearing attempt by Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen that was easily intercepted along the wall.
“It was the wrong play, I guess,” Andersen said. “I’ve got to do something better with the puck there.”
Frolik’s follow sprung from a bad neutral-zone pass from Jason Spezza that triggered a 2-on-1 counterattack.
“As a team, we’ve got to be way better at being in these thirds,” Marner said. “We’ve got to make sure we have that calmness and not throwing pucks away.”
Gaudreau was untouched in the high slot on his second, left free to redirect a fourth puck past Andersen.
“We talked about being a team that can close games out and being confident playing with the lead, and we just didn’t execute,” Tavares said. “I don’t know if we’re just thinking too much and don’t want to make next mistake, because we just gave up being in a good position.”
Coach Sheldon Keefe (now 6-4) has overseen some of Toronto’s most brilliant first periods and some of its most disturbing thirds. He views the issue as twofold.
“The first mistake is the structure piece and the next mistake, I think, is the mental piece,” Keefe said. “Because now, instead of just keeping our composure and staying in our structure, we’re running around and then it compounds the problem.”
Once the blare of AC/DC’s “TNT,” Calgary’s arena-rockin’ goal song, had finally stopped ringing in the ears of a red-and-blue-spotted crowd, the damage had already been done.
Credit the home side, certainly, but each Flames’ goal could be traced to a Toronto error without rewinding the tape too far.
Once the Maple Leafs failed to cash in on a rare 5-on-3 power-play midway through the third, you could wrap a bow on the thing.
“I don’t think we really need to practice,” Marner said. “We got five guys out there. Let us do our thing.”
Tavares added: “You get that type of opportunity, we got to find a way to capitalize.”
So scattered was the visitors’ effort that Keefe didn’t want to cast judgement on how his new-look lines fared.
In effort to get Kasperi Kapanen (one assist in five games) more involved offensively, Keefe elevated the winger to Auston Matthews’s scoring unit and dropped the defensively sound Pontus Aberg to Spezza’s fourth line. Pierre Engvall, the solid-looking Marlies call-up, earned a promotion to Alexander Kerfoot’s third line.
Yet the only line of consequence was Hyman-Tavares-Marner, generating both Leafs goals, both pretty ones.
“We just didn’t have a lot of guys who had good games today. We had one line I thought that was outstanding. After that,” Keefe said, flatly, “it would be hard to find guys who had a good day today.”
For that, you’d have to look to the C of Red. Andrew Mangiapane generated a series of high-danger chances, Travis Hamonic and Mark Giordano were stellar, and David Rittich outshone the heavily used Andersen between the pipes, stoning Tavares on a late breakaway for emphasis.
“Obviously, they’ve been really rolling here,” Keefe acknowledged of the winners. “Our team is trying to get some traction and we’ve started well.
“I still think there’s a long way for us to go. I don’t think we’re close to where we would like to be in terms of what we think we can look like when we really get some significant time together.”
The Maple Leafs have a day to lick their wounds. They must earn at least a point Saturday in Edmonton to fare better than .500 on what Matthews has described as a “critical” road trip.
“The game works in funny ways and teaches you lessons along the way,” Keefe said.
“Just another sign that we’ve got a long way to go as a group.”