It seems the Maple Leafs can’t close out the final 20 minutes of action as the third period is routinely turning into a disaster for the club. In three of Toronto’s previous four contests it has given up the game-tying or game-winning goals late in the game’s final frame.
The Maple Leafs were handed a golden opportunity at securing two points in the standings when they faced the depleted Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 16. Toronto had just crushed the Chicago Blackhawks by a score of 7-3 at home two nights earlier and were looking to carry that momentum into a contest against a Pittsburgh squad that was missing James Neal, Evgeni Malkin and the team’s top-four defensemen.
Unfortunately, the Penguins still had the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby, and it was all Pittsburgh needed to capture a victory over the Maple Leafs as their captain scored the game-winning goal with six minutes left in the game.
The late game struggles surfaced again three nights later for Toronto with the team clinging to a 1-0 lead against the Phoenix Coyotes. Martin Hanzal ruined James Reimer’s attempt at a shutout as he scored the game-tying goal with less than five minutes remaining in the contest. The Maple Leafs managed to defeat the Coyotes in the shootout, but it was another example of Toronto being minutes away from victory only for it to quickly be snatched away, which is exactly what happened when the Detroit Red Wings came to town two nights later.
The Red Wings owned a 3-1 lead at the end of the first period only to see the Maple Leafs claw their way back from the deficit to take a 4-3 lead mid-way through the third period. Unfortunately, just like two nights earlier against the Coyotes, Toronto gave up the game-tying goal in the game’s final minutes as Tomas Tatar scored with six minutes left in the period. Detroit would make the Maple Leafs pay for making the same mistake in consecutive games as the Red Wings would win 5-4 in a shootout.
Toronto has developed a bad trend of making game-changing mistakes late in the third period. Whether it’s giving up the game-winning goal when their outplaying their opponents or coughing up the lead minutes away from victory, the Maple Leafs can’t seem to keep the puck out of the net when it matters most. In the past week, three games were dramatically altered because of late third period goals and Toronto didn’t deserve to lose any of them.
Thankfully, the Maple Leafs managed to record three out of a possible six points despite the struggles, however, three extra points in the standings would be a significantly greater cushion. With the Ottawa Senators breathing down Toronto’s neck for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, the Maple Leafs would much rather be eight points ahead of their division rival than the five points they currently are ahead by.
Unfortunately, the only way Toronto will be able to pad its cushion in the standings will be if it can learn to play mistake-free in the final period.