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Leafs still giving up leads, and opportunities: DiManno

Morgan Rielly scored one for the Leafs and one for the Senators.

Ryan Dzingel scored one for the Senators and one for the Leafs.

The Toronto defenceman’s own-goal deflected off his foot. The Ottawa centre’s own-goal deflected off his face.

It was that kind of a gonzo hockey night at the Air Canada Centre, beginning with legends past taking a bow and maybe legends of the future ultimately taking a big-hurt whack across the standings.

Those would be the Leafs, coming of age and gaining of wisdom —and doing it the hard way now — within the tightening vise of a playoff positioning screw-down. They were down, tied, up, tied, then down-and-downer-and-downest in the wild concluding wedge of a 6-3 loss to their Ontario rivals, with a pair of empty-net goals acting like a pair of shivs in the gut.

On this evening, it turned out, their Anderson (Craig) was better than Toronto’s Andersen (Frederik), although it was hardly an exhibit of stellar goaltending — or pretty goals — at either end of the rink.

A “big, dumb mistake,” quoteth coach Mike Babcock about the Mike Hoffman goal at 5:32 of the third that knotted the score 3-3, with two Leafs chasing the play into the corner and Hoffman left unmolested in the high slot to snap a pass off the post and behind Andersen.

So, another momentum shift on a night that was roller coaster full of them, except this time, after coming back to par, the Senators filled their boots — taking the lead on a rebound traffic jam when the Leafs again failed to win a crucial defensive zone faceoff, with Derick Brassard the last Sen to get a poke at the puck and, rats, 4-3. And 5-3 and 6-3 and who cares by that point.

“It’s a game of momentum swings and there were a lot of them tonight,” a downcast Rielly understated afterwards.

The Atlantic Division gap between Toronto and Ottawa has thus spread to five points and, by this morning, the Leafs might have awakened in Carolina perhaps having relinquished their slippery grasp on the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, depending on how Florida fared in Los Angeles, a late start.

How fortunate that the Leafs grabbed their big pack of Ws before the February crunch, winners now of only four games in their last 11 and using up a credit stash of games in hand.

“Like we’ve been saying the whole time, we’re aware of the standings and those games in hand that we had,” said Rielly, who got Toronto on the board midway through the second, nicely atoning for his inadvertent gifts earlier. “They only matter if you win. If you don’t win them, then they’re just another game. We know what’s going on. That makes tonight that much tougher.

“That being said, we’ve got a chance to go into Carolina and get two points and turn the page on tonight and move forward.”

Yet another back-to-back tandem for the Leafs, and they’re not so great at those.

Rielly’s adventures and misadventures began when dutifully boxing out the Senators — twice, 20 seconds apart actually. First, he was tangling in front of Toronto’s net with the aforementioned Dzingel when Chris Wideman unloaded a bazooka from the point that caromed off the defenceman’s instep; then, he was again going mano-a-mano with Dzingel, in nearly the exactly circumstances, when the Senator deftly deflected a bullet from the blue line behind Andersen whilst fending off Rielly.

Rielly’s own goal, as opposed to own-goal, was not a thing of beauty, but it certainly ignited Toronto’s pushback. Even more homely — in a goofy way — was the tying effort by Nazem Kadri, essentially banking in a shot off Dzingel’s mug, looking very much like that was precisely what he’d intended.

The Leafs seemed to have the wind in their sails at that point, and took a crowd-exploding lead when William Nylander got a puck-on-the-tape cross-ice pass from Auston Matthews. Seventh power play goal for Nylander, early in the third.

But the Leafs, of course, have problems holding leads. It’s a young man’s team’s Achilles heel.

“Two really good teams, both teams play tight structure,” said Matthews later. “We knew going into it there wasn’t going to be a lot of space. That first period they really got onto us. Second and third we definitely bounced back.”

But, oh dear, the lost opportunity, again, especially after the Leafs had forced the hard-trapping Senators to play their style, well-instructed on how to attack that neutral zone trap by lifting they puck over the defencemen’s head, surging with speed and pressuring the blue liners when they turned to retrieve, hopefully scooping on a turnover.

“We had a lot of opportunity,” Matthews noted, regretfully. “We had guys in front, their D was blocking out well low, getting sticks on the puck, forcing us to miss on shots. It’s just up to compete a little harder and capitalize on those opportunities.”

As stated earlier, the gaining of wisdom, the hard way.

And this one mattered a ton, with three teams now just one point back — as of this writing — of the Leafs for that final wild card.

They were missing Mitch, though, clearly. M.I.A. through the weekend, at least.

On an evening when the club unveiled the identities of four inductee additions to Legends Row — Wendel Clark, Charlie Conacher, Red Kelly and Frank Mahovlich — it was possible to imagine rookies circa 2016-17 who might very well be likewise honoured way down the line. That doesn’t, of course, ease the dilemma of a Mitch Marner-less Leafs at this key juncture, such has been the exceptionally talented teenager’s contribution to hyper-matriculated betterment. The slick pocket-dynamo leads Toronto in assists, points and innate creativity — instinct-touch on the puck, pass-delivering whereabouts, ice radar.

He is a ghost-blip on Toronto’s screen for the moment, though, for the weekend of back-to-back engagements. But, as Babcock observed earlier in the day: “I’ve never been a big believer in worrying about the guys that aren’t playing. We’ll worry about the guys that are playing and get them to play right.”

They didn’t. Then they did. And then they didn’t.