TORONTO - What a difference three days made for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In the Winter Classic they played in front of 105,491 fans, many of whom drove several hours to Michigan Stadium to watch the spectacle amid frigid temperatures. Saturday night against the New York Rangers they were booed off the ice multiple times in an embarrassing 7-1 loss at Air Canada Centre that snapped the Leafs winning streak at three.
"Getting booed off the ice in the first period, second period and the end of the game - and we deserved it," winger Joffrey Lupul said. "We were not good in any aspect. We don't feel very good about ourselves right now."
There wasn't much to feel good about as the Leafs (21-17-5) experienced the worst kind of let-down from the high of the Winter Classic. Goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who had been stellar lately, was pulled for the first time all season, David Clarkson and Carl Gunnarsson left with injuries and everything fell apart at the seams.
"Sometimes you have losses where you take some positives out of: some guys played well, you did certain things well, you didn't do other things well," said Lupul, who had Toronto's only goal. "Tonight we did nothing well. There's not much we can take out of this other than just not wanting to have this feeling in here again."
The feeling of the loss led to the home locker-room being closed to the media much longer than usual. Coach Randy Carlyle called his team's lack of a push-back the "most disappointing thing" as goals piled up from Carl Hagelin, Dominic Moore (two), Benoit Pouliot, Chris Kreider, Brad Richards and Brian Byle.
He shared the same sentiment with players.
"My message was it was unacceptable to play and to feel that we were not embarrassed by what our performance was," Carlyle said. "And I stressed we."
There was plenty of soul-searching after the Leafs' most lopsided loss of the season, and as Lupul pointed out, plenty of blame to go around.
Bernier, who had stopped 181-of-190 shots since relieving James Reimer on Dec. 21 against the Detroit Red Wings, gave up five goals on 32 shots to the Rangers before getting yanked for the first time this season. Moore's first goal from a bad angle, which made it 2-0, was the softest he has allowed in a long time.
Still, this one couldn't be pinned on Bernier, or even Reimer, who didn't fare much better in allowing two goals on 18 shots.
"They had the freedom to roam about the ice and do what they wanted to do, and we didn't engage in the competitive side of it of limiting their space, stepping in front of anybody, skating in front of anybody to impede the progress," Carlyle said. "Obviously we left our goalies hanging high and dry."
With the Leafs rarely in control of the puck and players being a step slow at times, the Rangers (21-20-2) pounced. They scored at least six goals for the first time this season and could have had as many as nine if Rick Nash finished on an empty net early and a late goal by Pouliot wasn't called back for Boyle interfering with Reimer.
It was a real bounce-back effort for New York after losing 5-2 at the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday night.
"I know the guys were ready last night and turned the page on it, analyzed it, we got ready, the guys came out, moved the puck well, got some good opportunities and we were able to finish a couple," coach Alain Vigneault said.
It stuck out that the Leafs couldn't keep pace with the Rangers, who travelled and were playing the second half of back-to-back games.
"It's always disappointing when you give up seven goals, and especially they played last night," Bernier said. "They were just quicker and faster than us."
All night the Leafs had no answers for what the Rangers were doing in the offensive zone. Defenceman Cody Franson, who was burned a couple of times on plays that led to goals, knew he and his teammates were on their heels from the get-go.
"We got outworked, to put it mildly," Franson said.
The Leafs certainly didn't do enough work to put pressure on Rangers backup goaltender Cam Talbot, who stopped 25 of the 26 shots thrown on net. It was another steady outing from the rookie, who improved to 9-3-0 with a 1.66 goals-against average and .938 save percentage.
"I've always just kind of started as a backup and then started playing more games, so I've been in these situations before and you learn from every situation you're in," Talbot said.
There's not much the Leafs can learn from this one. They lost Clarkson to a left foot injury after he got hit with a shot from Rangers defenceman Michael Del Zotto and Gunnarsson to an upper-body injury following a hit from Hagelin.
"No offence to those guys, but I don't know if they would've been helping tonight," Lupul said. "You never like to see guys go down, and those are two veteran guys and we're hoping they're all right. ... That's certainly not an excuse for how we played tonight."
Getting beaten so handily right after the Winter Classic was a ready-made excuse, even though Lupul and Carlyle noted that the Leafs were relieved to be done with the hype that came with the game and HBO's "24/7."
Carlyle ended his post-game news conference blowing off any excuses.
"I just look at tonight, you could go forwards, defence, you could go to our whole group, and we didn't have the competitive edge that's required to have success," he said. "Everything that I say is going to be an excuse, so I'm not here to make an excuse for anybody."
With answers lacking and excuses thrown out, Lupul passed along to reporters what was said in the locker-room afterward. It wasn't pretty.
"We're not proud of that game, it's embarrassing," he said. "I apologize to people who paid money to see us play like that. It's one game and we're going to feel pretty bad about this tonight and then hopefully tomorrow come back and practise and get some life and try to turn the page on it."
After so much notable progress in recent games, the Leafs were outshot 50-26. The loss stunted any momentum they had been building.
"We felt that we were becoming more competitive," Carlyle said. "And this one kind of sent an A-bomb."
NOTES - Newly acquired defenceman Tim Gleason was a healthy scratch as Carlyle stuck with the same lineup from the Winter Classic. Gleason took warm-ups, but Carlyle announced Saturday morning that the former Carolina Hurricanes blue-liner would not play unless there was a late injury or illness. ... Talbot got the start after Henrik Lundqvist played Friday night in Pittsburgh and allowed five goals in a loss to the Penguins.
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