TORONTO (CP) - When James Reimer gave up a goal on the first shot he faced, it looked like it would be another long night for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
By the time Reimer and Leafs lost 5-3 to the Tampa Bay Lightning at Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night, the condition of injured defenceman Paul Ranger overshadowed a third straight defeat and one that could hurt Toronto's playoff chances.
Ranger was taken to a local hospital with a head injury suffered late in the first period when he was crushed into the boards by Tampa Bay's Alex Killorn. The 29-year-old's head hit the glass, and he remained on the ice for roughly seven minutes before medical personnel put him on a stretcher and took him off.
The Leafs issued an update via Twitter saying that Ranger was "stable, conscious and alert'' after being taken to the hospital for a "precautionary assessment.''
Ranger's injury came with 4.1 seconds left in the first period of the Leafs' loss, which featured a natural hat trick from Lightning star Steven Stamkos, who scored his three goals on three shots.
Radko Gudas scored Tampa Bay's first goal just 59 seconds into the first period from just inside the blue line.
The Leafs answered with goals by Phil Kessel, his team-leading 35th of the season, and Nikolai Kulemin. After falling behind 4-2, Jake Gardiner scored in the third period, but Toronto could not beat Vezina Trophy candidate Ben Bishop (36 saves) again the rest of the night, and Tyler Johnson added an insurance goal for the Lightning.
Reimer, who became the first Toronto goaltender to start on back-to-back days this season, surrendered three goals on eight shots and finished with 25 saves on 30 shots.
With Jonathan Bernier still out with a groin injury, Reimer's play has been centre stage for the Leafs, especially after coach Randy Carlyle called his play Tuesday night in Detroit "just OK.'' Reimer disagreed with that assessment, and his agent, in on Twitter, as well.
"As is customary in Toronto, when your team plays poor defensively game after game you blame your goalie,'' Ray Petkau wrote.
Petkau used a couple of other tweets to clarify that he meant it as a general observation, not a reaction to the post-game comments. On Wednesday he issued a statement to attempt to further explain.
"The tweet I sent out last night, while inadvertently relevant to other comments made, was not a response to post game comments from Randy Carlyle or James Reimer,'' Petkau wrote in the statement, which was emailed to The Canadian Press. "I didn't hear those interviews until later. That said, obviously this has been a trying season for James but those are issues that we will deal with in the off season. Twitter is not the place for that but the timing of my tweet necessitated further comment under these circumstances.
"Having the confidence of teammates, coaching staff and a team of supporters around them is imperative for a goalie's success, especially in a big hockey market. I will always have my clients' back.''
A couple of Reimer's teammates voiced nothing but confidence in the 26-year-old goaltender and praised him for how he has handled a demotion to the backup role behind Bernier this season.
"That role's a tough role to play,'' defenceman Cody Franson said earlier in the day. "Reims has done a great job with it. He's been a total pro with it. He hasn't done anything to be a distraction or anything like that. He's came in and played well when he's been asked to. He's given us chances to win games that he's been playing in.''
The Leafs had a chance Wednesday night against the Lightning, even after a seemingly innocent shot by Gudas fooled Reimer in the game's first minute.
Kessel answered at 3:31 of the first period, getting wide open at the side of the net and slamming home a pass from defenceman Carl Gunnarsson, who was stationed on the goal-line.
Kulemin gave Toronto the lead 10:32 into the first period when he stood in the left face-off circle and deflected a perfect slap pass from Tim Gleason past Bishop, who entered the game with the second-best save percentage in the NHL among starters.
Then Stamkos went to work, sparked by an interference penalty on Leafs forward David Clarkson. On the ensuing power play, Stamkos, playing in just his seventh game back after missing four months with a broken right leg, scored on a one-timer from his usual spot at the bottom of the faceoff circle at the 13:22 mark.
Less than three minutes later, Stamkos scored at even strength when Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf and his teammates left him alone in front of Reimer. Johnson, who replaced longtime linemate Martin St. Louis as the first-line right-winger, fed Stamkos for his second goal of the night on his second shot at 15:39 to give Tampa Bay the lead back.
The clock was ticking down to zeros at the end of the first period when the complexion of the night changed with Killorn's hit on Ranger.
Ranger was going back for the puck along the end boards in the defensive zone when he appeared to turn and see Killorn coming. When the Lightning forward finished his check, Ranger's head struck the glass violently.
As medical personnel attended to the veteran defenceman and a stretcher was wheeled onto the ice, Killorn was given a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct. The final 4.1 seconds of the first period were postponed until after the ice was resurfaced, a decision that officials made before Ranger was taken off on the stretcher.
The Leafs were unable to score on Killorn's penalty. Less than a minute after it expired, Stamkos got free again to complete the hat trick on just his third shot of the night. It was his 19th goal of the season in just his 23rd game.
Toronto released the update on Ranger's status during the second intermission.
Gardiner gave the Leafs some life 8:20 into the third period by skating around the net and scoring his fifth goal in seven games to make the deficit 4-3.
A high-sticking penalty on the Leafs' Jay McClement paved the way for Johnson's power-play goal at 12:56 of the third. That took the air out of the building as the Lightning extended their lead over Toronto in the Atlantic Division to three points.
The Leafs remained in the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
NOTES - Toronto dressed seven defencemen and 11 forwards for the 12th time in the past 13 games. That meant Colton Orr and Carter Ashton were healthy scratches up front. Kessel was honoured before the game as the the Leafs' Molson Cup recipient for the month of February. With it came a $1,000 donation in Kessel's name to ProAction Cops and Kids, a charity that works with police in Toronto and other cities in southern Ontario "to fund programs that bring police and youth together in positive ways.''