COLUMBUS, Ohio - David Clarkson's debut was supposed to help the Toronto Maple Leafs establish an identity.
Instead, he and his teammates were outworked by the Columbus Blue Jackets in a penalty-filled 5-2 loss Friday night at Nationwide Arena. Clarkson took the first of eight minor penalties in a choppy game that left players searching for answers.
"We know we've got better, we know we have to do the right things to be an A-team in this league and we didn't do the right things tonight," said forward Dave Bolland, who scored the Leafs' second goal and took two penalties.
Special teams play was a major reason Toronto entered the game 7-3-0 despite coach Randy Carlyle lamenting his team's lack of an identity early this season. The Leafs only gave up one power-play goal to Columbus, but the parade to the penalty box still hurt them.
They spent 11 minutes 32 seconds shorthanded, forcing goaltender Jonathan Bernier to take on a heavy workload and disrupting the flow of the game. Six of the minor penalties were stick infractions, in part the result of what Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards figured was his group's best skating game of the year.
"They're a good team, they work hard, they had a good forecheck on us," said Bernier, who stopped 31 of the 35 shots he faced. "We had some scoring chances, we just didn't put it in the net."
The Blue Jackets got on the board on the power play, as defenceman Ryan Murray scored his first NHL goal just 39 seconds after Clarkson was penalized for hooking Nick Foligno. Marian Gaborik scored in the third not long after Nazem Kadri was released from the box after the second of his three penalties, and Brandon Dubinsky scored the game-winner with Columbus shorthanded later in the period.
"The power plays were definitely lopsided, and then we get a break to go four-on-three and we give up a short-handed (goal)," Carlyle said. "Kind of set the table for what happened tonight."
It was an uneven performance from the get-go for the Leafs, who were outshot 16-5 in the first period and didn't get on the board until Phil Kessel scored 40 seconds after the first intermission. Penalties piled up after that, and Bernier did his best to keep his team in the game.
"We've got to get a better effort," said Clarkson, who had four shots, two penalty minutes and a minus-1 rating in 15:10 of ice time. "Especially Bernie's been playing that well for us, and we kind of hang him out to dry there a little bit."
Bernier said the Leafs didn't bring their "effort" against the Blue Jackets, but that wasn't lacking from Clarkson, who missed the first 10 games of the season while serving a suspension for leaving the bench to enter a pre-season fight. Carlyle figured Clarkson looked "rusty" but expected that after so much time away from game action.
"He's going to try, he's going to work," Carlyle said. "The other things as far as the stick-handling and the turnovers and stuff, I think you've got to give the guy some slack. He hasn't played any games this year. Everybody else is about 10 games ahead of him."
Clarkson didn't feel rusty but wasn't giving himself any glowing reviews, in part because of the final result.
"Any time you lose, you don't feel good," Clarkson said. "I felt like on the forecheck my jump was there, I felt OK. ... (But) it's all about winning right now, and it doesn't matter how anyone feels we've got to find a way to win it, we've got to play better than that."
After signing a US$36.75-million, seven-year deal with the Leafs in the off-season and taking on the expectations that went with it, Clarkson was anxious to make an impact. Weeks of bag skates prepared him for this moment, but once the puck dropped he tried to forget about all that.
"I think I've played in the league long enough that it's not just another game, but when you've been out that long, you want to get out there and get some hits and get on the forecheck and make some plays," he said. "All that stuff, hopefully one down and now we'll get going."
Clarkson wasn't to blame for the Leafs' third-period meltdown, which included Gaborik's fifth goal of the season and Dubinsky's shorthanded that came on a bad break. In his third straight start, Bernier faulted himself for not making enough saves, but the ex-New York Rangers forward made just about the perfect shot.
"You've got to give the shooter credit sometime," Bernier said. "He put it right under the bar. It was a good shot."
Clarkson and his teammates must try to rebound quickly, with Sidney Crosby (18 points in 10 games) and the Pittsburgh Penguins visiting Air Canada Centre on Saturday night. Just like the Penguins after a 4-3 loss to the New York Islanders, the Leafs have little time to dwell on this performance.
"We're going to be fine, we've got to bounce back," Clarkson said. "This is the game of hockey, you're not going to win every game. I think we know what we've got to be better in."
Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at (at)SWhyno
NOTES - Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, last year's Vezina Trophy winner, stopped 23 of the 25 shots he faced. ... Foligno scored the Blue Jackets' fifth goal against Bernier with seven seconds left after Ryan Johansen put the puck into an empty net 20 seconds earlier. ... Kessel left the game briefly late in the second period and went down the tunnel toward the locker-room but returned at the start of the third and finished with 16:20 of ice time.
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