TORONTO—The Maple Leafs were encouraged by a chaotic comeback attempt that fell just short.
It was their first 40 minutes—and an especially disastrous opening period—where a number of uncomfortable questions remain.
Brendan Perlini had a goal and two assists as the Chicago Blackhawks jumped out to a big lead before fending off a furious Toronto rally for a 5-4 victory last night.
The Leafs trailed 4-0 after a shambolic first that featured horrendous giveaways coupled with galling miscues in the defensive zone, and 5-0 late in the second before they woke up and made the Blackhawks sweat.
“Pretty ugly,” Toronto centre John Tavares said of his team's start.
“When we had breakdowns, we were obviously way too loose.”
The Leafs had a built-in excuse in the immediate aftermath of Monday's listless 6-2 home loss to the first-place Tampa Bay Lightning—the players got just one day off following a three-game road trip through Western Canada—but only had themselves to blame against an opponent that started the night 20 points back in the NHL's overall standings.
“We just weren't ready to play again, came out flat-footed," Toronto centre Auston Matthews noted. ”They're hungry, they're fighting for a playoff spot.
“That first period was obviously unacceptable.”
Brandon Saad, with a goal and an assist, Duncan Keith, Dominik Kahun, and Alex DeBrincat also scored for Chicago (31-30-9).
Dylan Strome added two assists for the Blackhawks, who now have won four-straight and crept within four points of the Arizona Coyotes for the second wild-card berth in the Western Conference.
Corey Crawford made 17 saves through two periods before leaving the game due to illness.
Colin Delia turned aside 26-of-29 shots as part of a crazy third in relief.
“We played really well in the first period and most of the second,” Chicago head coach Jeremy Colliton said.
“As soon as they get one and certainly two, they get a little hope and the crowd gets going and they get some energy.”
Matthews, Morgan Rielly, and Andreas Johnsson each had a goal and an assist for Toronto (42-23-5) in a sloppy, uninspired performance through two periods that cost the club a chance to move within two points of the Boston Bruins in the battle between Atlantic Division rivals for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Tavares also scored for Toronto while William Nylander and Mitch Marner had two assists each as the Leafs directed 95 shots attempts towards Crawford and Delia, including 50 alone in the third.
Frederik Andersen allowed four goals on 14 shots in the first before getting pulled in favour of Garret Sparks, who finished with 24 saves.
Chicago went ahead 1-0 at 3:19 of the first when Keith's blast was deflected by Nylander, rattled around between Andersen's pads, and just slid over the line.
The Blackhawks made it 2-0 at 12:55 when Perlini cut into the middle and whipped a knuckling shot on Andersen for his fifth goal in the last four games.
Tavares then lost the puck at the offensive blueline, leading to a 2-on-1 break where Patrick Kane fed Kahun, who buried his 12th at 17:13.
Andersen received a Bronx cheer from the ornery Scotiabank Arena crowd on his next save, but was completely hung out to dry on Chicago's fourth of the period.
Leafs' defencemen Ron Hainsey motioned for fourth-line centre Frederik Gauthier to cover in front but the message wasn't received, leaving Saad all alone to tuck his in 23rd as four Toronto skaters were caught puck-watching.
It marked the first time the Leafs have given up four goals in a period this season, and the first time it's happened in the opening 20 minutes of a home game since Dec. 23, 2008.
Andersen was replaced by Sparks to start the second, marking the first time in his career he's been pulled in consecutive games.
“We weren't very good,” Toronto head coach Mike Babcock conceded.
“We didn't look after the puck good enough and compete at a high enough level.”
Chicago made it 5-0 at of the second 12:32 when Leafs' defenceman Nikita Zaitsev's indecision led to DeBrincat roofing his 38th.
Toronto, which beat Chicago at the United Center in a wild 7-6 overtime affair back in October, finally got on the board with 1:33 left in the period when Rielly had his shot deflected in by Johnsson for his 20th.
Playing the 200th game of his career, Matthews brought the Leafs a little closer at 7:57 of the third when he banked in his 32nd.
Rielly made it 5-3 on the power play with his 19th to raise the temperature at 10:55 before the defenceman hit the post moments later.
Tavares then stuffed his career-high 39th past Delia with 1:31 left inside a raucous Scotiabank Arena.
The Leafs continued to press—Delia appeared to push the net off its moorings with under a minute to go during a mad scramble where he'd lost his stick—but the Blackhawks held on as both Matthews and Nazem Kadri failed to connect on late chances.
“We didn't put ourselves in a very good position," Rielly said. ”But I think you have to be happy with the way we battled back.
“That being said, moving forward, it's not a start that we want to repeat.”
Elsewhere in the NHL, New Jersey doubled Edmonton 6-3 and Vancouver beat the N.Y. Rangers 4-1.