TORONTO (AP)—The best statement about the current predicament facing the Pittsburgh Penguins came from a player who wasn’t even interviewed.
Evgeni Malkin sat in the visiting locker room with his head in his hands long after his teammates had already taken their equipment off and headed for the showers Saturday night. There was no need to ask the NHL’s scoring leader how he felt.
These Penguins, after all, were supposed to be a desperate team chasing a playoff spot. Instead, they only looked to be in a desperate situation after blowing a two-goal lead to the Toronto Maple Leafs and losing 6-2.
Pittsburgh has just one road win since Dec. 26 and remains five points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s up to the players,” coach Michel Therrien said. “There’s a price to pay to win games on the road and right now we’re having a hard time staying focused and executing.”
They were certainly facing a susceptible opponent.
The Maple Leafs entered the game as one of the NHL’s worst teams on home ice and were returning from a miserable road trip. On top of that, Pittsburgh scored two goals on its first three shots and had the home fans booing goalie Vesa Toskala.
But then, without warning, the momentum disappeared.
“Our focus wasn’t there,” said defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who returned from a shoulder injury for his first game of the season. “We didn’t play well in the second and third. In the NHL nowadays you cannot do it. You’re not going to win any hockey games, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing. The focus has to be there for 60 minutes.”
Pittsburgh actually took a 2-1 lead into the third period before Jason Blake quickly turned the tables in Toronto’s favor. He scored goals 19 seconds apart, giving his team the lead for good and bringing the building to life.
The winner was Blake’s 21st of the season and will be shown on a few highlight reels. He spun and brought the puck from his backhand to his forehand before sliding it behind Marc-Andre Fleury.
Even though that was the decisive moment, Blake felt the game changed earlier on.
“I thought we did a great job in the second period,” Blake said. “We got pucks deep, we had our skating legs, we forechecked well, we had a lot of shots on net. Overall, I thought it was a great team effort and Vesa played great.
“It was just a good win tonight.”
It’s going to be an uphill climb for Pittsburgh. The defending Eastern Conference champions have to finish 16-9 just to reach 91 points—and that total hasn’t been good enough to qualify for the playoffs any year since the lockout.
“Every point is very important and we need them,” Gonchar said. “There’s not that much time left, we have to focus on every single point. Pretty much every single turnover can cost us the season.”