By Allan Muir
In a contest marked by displays of brute strength and aggression, Toronto's Dion Phaneuf was the night's chief punisher, doling out a game-high 10 hits against the Boston Bruins.
His decision to go for No. 11 cost the Leafs the game.
Midway through a breakneck-paced overtime period, Phaneuf targeted Nathan Horton in an ill-timed pinch at the Boston blue line. He got a piece of the big winger, but wiped out two of his own teammates in the process and allowed the puck to get by him to David Krejci. The Bruins center, who already had two goals in the contest, carried the puck into the Toronto zone, drew in tight and whipped the puck under the arm of James Reimer to give Boston a 4-3 win and a commanding 3-1 series lead.
Toronto's first taste of the postseason in nine years could be brief. They'll face elimination in Game 5 Friday night.
It's hard to imagine that game will match the intensity of Game 4. This was as thrilling as hockey gets, with wild swings in momentum that saw each team carrying the play for frantic stretches until the other inevitably took over, swapping big hits and glorious scoring chances that left a boisterous Air Canada Centre crowd wondering what could possibly happen next. Posts were hit, open nets were missed and 93 shots found the target, including a nail-biting 20 in overtime.
It started off well enough for the home side. Joffrey Lupul opened the scoring on Toronto's first shot 2:35 into the first period after Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden got tangled up in front of the Boston net. Cody Franson made it 2-0 late in the period when Chara screened Tuukka Rask, allowing his soft wrister to sneak by. Coming off a nervous start to Game 3, the Leafs were steaming along nicely, with their legs dictating the pace and their strength dominating the boards.
But then Boston's special teams took over. Patrice Bergeron broke a long slump with his first of the series on the power play just 32 seconds into the second. Krejci scored the next two, the first on a gritty deflection in the crease, the second on a nifty one-timer on the power play. Clarke MacArthur tied it up 44 seconds later, but then Boston's penalty kill took over, snuffing out any momentum Toronto might have built up with that goal by shutting down a 53-second five-on-three chance. The Bruins killed all four Toronto power plays, thanks to a sensational performance by Rask, who made 45 saves on the night.
There was no scoring in the third, but the chances came at both ends of the ice. Reimer was brilliant, stoning Horton twice. Lucky, too, as he watched Bergeron's last-second bid sail just wide of the far post.
Through it all, the Leafs played as well as they possibly could, trading punches for nearly 75 minutes with the veteran Bruins. In the end, it was Boston's experience, personified by Krejci and Chara, who recovered from that sorry first period to log four assists, that sealed the deal. Still, Leafs fans have to wonder what might have been if not for that Phaneuf's pinch.