Game 12: When a loss feels like a win
Losing doesn't usually feel so inspiring.
But when the shootout in Washington ended, when the Leafs wobbled home on the wrong side of a 5-4 final score, I was reminded of a quote from American poet Edwin Markham: "Defeat may serve as well as victory to shake the soul and let the glory out."
Yes, the Leafs lost last night. No, it wasn't a complete loss.
Before venturing into the inhospitable Verizon Center, the visitors could have packed all kinds of excuses into their carry-on luggage.
Earlier in the day, they learned captain Dion Phaneuf would miss four to six weeks after suffering a deep leg laceration. They were playing back-to-back games. And they were about to face-off against the Capitals, an early Cup favourite and team that's as explosive as a box of firecrackers in the sun.
The odds were not good.
But at 14:29 of the first, Toronto surprised everybody and scored first.
After Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski scavenged for control along the boards, after Carl Gunnarson pinched smartly, Nikolai Kulemin grabbed the puck, waited, deked a sprawling defender, spun around and flipped it past goaltender Michal Neuvirth.
It was Kulemin's second goal in as many games.
The Caps didn't get to the front porch very often in the first, thanks in part to solid defensive plays by Luke Schenn, Brett Lebda and Francois Beauchemin. And when they did, Jonas Gustavsson closed the door.
Then in the second, oh Lord, someone ignited the firecrackers.
Within 5 minutes and 23 seconds, the Caps scored three unanswered goals, the first on the power play. Suddenly, the game conjured memories of blowouts past. Suddenly, it looked like an ugly runaway in the making.
Cue the third period inspiration.
At 4:14, Mike Brown deflected a Tomas Kaberle shot for his first goal of the season.
At 5:02, Kris Versteeg was sent in alone and went five-hole.
At 7:17, Tyler Bozak jumped on a rebound and wristed the puck into the open side.
In three minutes and three seconds, the Leafs had taken an improbable lead. Suddenly, the game conjured memories of comebacks past. Suddenly, it looked like a magical victory in the making.
Alas, it was not to be.
After Colton Orr's game-winning tally against Florida, in which the refs missed his goaltender interference, I vowed not to complain about officiating until at least Christmas. So I won't say the Leafs received some marginal calls last night, including one that resulted in a power play goal to catapult the game into overtime.
What I will say is this: The Leafs played hard and they did not give up. They earned a point that may prove more valuable than it now seems if this team finds itself in a dogfight for a playoff spot down the road.
It was a gutsy team effort, one that felt more like a catharsis than a defeat.
From the Monster diving across the crease to make an unbelievable stick save late in the second period to Tim Brent courageously throwing his body in front of an Ovechkin slapshot in overtime, the Leafs exhibited grit and determination in pursuit of victory.
"Energy personified!" thundered TSN's always calm Pierre McGuire, after the third period outburst. (I'm not sure that even makes sense but I was inclined to agree.)
Going into a shootout against Washington is like going into a decorating contest against Martha Stewart: There is no shame in losing. This is especially true when you get to that shootout after overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the third, on the road, against a team that can run-and-gun with the best of 'em.
So despite extending their winless streak, the Leafs should feel good about the way they have played over the past 48 hours. If they can maintain this intensity, if they can get some scoring from all four lines and some acrobatic heroics between the pipes, it's only a matter of time until the winning returns.
LEAFS TICKET CONTEST: Whoops. I forgot to mention this yesterday. The Star is running a… haiku contest? Yup, that's what the Urgent Memo says. I know, right? It sounds a bit weird but whatever.
Here's the important part: If you author the winning haiku, you win tickets to an upcoming Leafs game at the ACC. Your 5/7/5 syllabic creation needs to focus on "Phaneuf's injury and the Leafs' current losing streak."
Here, I just thought of one: "Squawk, captain is cut / Blood in the sock of our dreams / Get well Rooster Hair!"
Follow this link for more details and to post your entry.
PHOTO: JOE GIZA/REUTERS