TORONTO — As the Toronto Maple Leafs returned from a winless Western Conference road trip, they found the friendly confines of Air Canada Centre to be not so welcoming.
A few fans threw jerseys onto the ice, a couple wore bags over their heads and many more voiced their displeasure by booing. In the game itself, it was much more of the same as the Leafs were thoroughly outclassed by the lowly Carolina Hurricanes in a 4-1 loss Monday night.
It was Toronto’s fifth loss in a row with just two goals to show for 300 minutes of hockey.
"It’s a similar answer that we’ve been saying for now the past five games: We haven’t found a way to put pucks in the net," captain Dion Phaneuf said. "The bottom line is that we had our chances and we’re having a tough time putting the puck in the net. That’s very evident."
The only thing that kept the Leafs (22-22-3) from being shut out for the fourth time in five games was a power-play goal by Nazem Kadri in the third period. That ended a goal drought of 162 minutes 14 seconds.
Before that point, they fell behind by three thanks to goals by Brad Malone, Elias Lindholm and Eric Staal. Interim coach Peter Horachek tried to convince his players to get back at it after falling behind, but it was hard to shake the feeling.
"I get the sense like there’s a big letdown," Horachek said.
Carolina (16-25-5) capitalized, chasing goaltender Jonathan Bernier with three goals on 13 shots. Anton Khudobin stopped 34 of the 35 shots he faced as the Hurricanes improved to 6-2-1 since the calendar flipped to 2015.
"We weren’t perfect, though we played hard and we competed," first-year coach Bill Peters said. "Back-to-back wins on the road for the first time for us this year, so things are going in the right direction."
Things appear to be going in the wrong direction for the Leafs, who are 1-6-0 under Horachek and have lost 13 of 16 dating to the inconsistencies that cost Randy Carlyle his job. Horachek has tried to instill a tough, defensive mentality, but his team has been outscored 24-9 since he took over.
And though the Leafs’ overall defensive play may have improved, the results aren’t there.
"When you give up that many chances and you win hockey games (earlier in the season), sometimes that comes back to haunt you," said Phaneuf, who fought Eric Staal in the second period. "And right now we’re just having a tough time on the other side of the puck because we’ve cut down our chances against but we haven’t been able to put the puck in the net."
Unable to find a happy medium between defensive responsibility and offensive power, the Leafs again fell into the trap of trying to sacrifice one for the other. Horachek said his team "cheated" too often after falling behind.
By the time the Leafs were down 3-0 in the second period, one fan threw a jersey onto the ice.
"We don’t appreciate that, obviously," winger Phil Kessel said. "We’re trying. I don’t know if people see that. We are trying. I don’t know. We can’t find it right now."
When the Leafs were trying and even had possession of the puck, another jersey came flying.
"I don’t know how that happens or what security or the ushers are doing," Kadri said. "It seems like we’re giving the guy an extra couple minutes to flip everybody off and to mock our real fans. I don’t know how that guy’s not taken by his shirt and dragged out of there, but what do I know."
Frustration was evident throughout the game, even from the Hurricanes. Eric Staal, who got into only his second career NHL fight with Phaneuf after the Leafs’ captain hit brother Jordan, wound up and fired a slap shot from close range into an empty net to seal it.
Staal seemed intent to either let the puck drill Phaneuf or the net.
"I was ready," Staal said. "One of those plays where you just react and you’re into the emotion of the game, you’re into the energy and I knew I wanted to get it in so I made sure I got a hold of it."
Staal scored more goals Monday night than Leafs forwards have in the past five games. This latest loss was just more strife in a season that has gone bad quickly.
"We didn’t play our best tonight," Kessel said. "We had good spurts in there, we had some chances and it’s not good enough."
Notes: Kadri’s goal snapped Carolina’s streak of consecutive penalties killed at 36, which dated to Dec. 21 against the Rangers. Peters said it was "an opportunity to start a new streak." … Leafs backup James Reimer stopped all 18 shots he faced in relief and could start Wednesday at Ottawa in the final game before the all-star break. … Forwards Leo Komarov (shoulder) and Troy Bodie (healthy) and defenceman Stephane Robidas (upper-body injury) were scratches for the Leafs. Matt Frattin made his eighth appearance of the season in Bodie’s place. … Winger Alexander Semin and former Leafs defenceman John-Michael Liles were healthy scratches for Carolina.