Difficult loss leaves Leafs on the brink

James Reimer, right, skates away after David Krejci's overtime goal won it for Boston. Graig Abel/NHLI/Getty Images

TORONTO -- The home dressing room felt like a morgue.

James Reimer could barely lift his head.

And James van Riemsdyk said it best, despite an all-out effort by his Toronto Maple Leafs in one of this spring’s most entertaining tilts.

“There are no moral victories in the playoffs,” JVR said before walking off to the showers.

The young Leafs, playoff neophytes before the puck dropped last Wednesday in Boston to open the series, played their hearts out and showed in their fourth game that they’re figuring out what this whole postseason thing is all about.

They went toe-to-toe with the veteran Boston Bruins, a raucous Air Canada Centre crowd jumping out of their seats with every scoring chance in a frenzied overtime period in which the Leafs outshot the Bruins 11-9.

But yet again, a key mistake cost the Leafs. The type of mistake the veteran Bruins, 2011 Cup champs, just don’t make very often.

The Bruins might lose games, but they don’t often beat themselves. That’s what Toronto did on the winner. It was the sliver of a difference in a 4-3 overtime affair.

Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf made a bad pinch at the Bruins’ blue line, crushing Nathan Horton with a big hit but allowing the Bruins winger to chip the puck out to David Krecji, who fled away on a clear 2-on-1 break with Milan Lucic.

And if you closed your eyes on the play and simply listened, you knew what happened next just by hearing the muted ACC crowd.

“You can’t afford to make mistakes that lead to off-man rushes,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “We turned the puck over deep in the corner, then we pinched, gave them an odd-man rush, and they scored a short-side goal to beat us.

“That feels like a dagger after the effort that was put forward by our group.”

A dagger indeed, the Bruins now up 3-1 in the series with a chance to clinch it Friday night at home in what will be a rocking TD Garden.

Krejci capped the hat trick by beating Reimer with a wrist shot that squeezed by the Leafs goalie. Usually a setup man, the Czech center admitted afterwards shooting was not option No. 1.

“Yeah, I was looking to pass the whole way,” he smiled. “But (Lucic) is a lefty, he was on his backhand, so that kind of made my decision easier. I also had (Zdeno Chara) and was thinking about him for a one-timer, because he’s got the best one-timer in the league. But they took him away, too. So I just tried to shoot it. In overtime, there’s never a bad shot. It wasn’t a perfect shot, but it went in.”

Another monster night for Krejci’s line with Lucic and Horton, the trio combining for five points to push their series total to 22 overall in four games.

The Bruins were certainly pushed. They fell behind 2-0 in the opening period, which ignited the home crowd, something that didn’t happen in Game 3 with the Leafs trailing the whole night.

This time, the ACC crowd of 19,708 was as loud as this place can get given the corporate suits in the NHL’s most expensive seats near the ice.

But the Bruins showed their poise and experience, calmly responding to that early deficit.

“Even when we were behind two goals I thought we were making some strong plays and could have easily scored, too,” said the captain Chara, who had four assists. “We bounced back with a really strong second.”

Did they ever, the Bruins scoring three unanswered goals in the middle period in what was easily Toronto’s brain-cramp moment.

And while the Leafs tied it late in the second period on Clarke MacArthur’s goal, the lesson here yet again is that Toronto cannot expect to take stretches like that off and still hope to beat a former championship team.

“Once again it was a small pocket, but it cost us the game,” said Leafs blue-liner Cody Franson, who was again terrific with a plus-3 performance and scoring his team’s second goal.

“We pushed the pace in the overtime, we pushed the pace in the third, we had a decent first period, and a hiccup in the second period. We made some mistakes, but it’s tough. We can’t afford to dwell on it.”

You’re not going to sell the big-picture view on too many players in that Leafs dressing room.

But the fact remains that win or lose in this series -- and it’s obviously not looking good down 3-1 -- this is a team that has grown by giant strides in just eight days and four games of the playoffs.

They’re getting it.

“Yeah, the experience helps us,” Franson said. “We’re a young group. There’s quite a few guys that haven’t gone through it before. Guys are starting to get a little bit more comfortable with the intensity and the emotion that comes with these games.”

All the more reason the Bruins needed to plant that dagger Wednesday night; because a 2-2 series with a Leafs team growing in belief would have been a dangerous thing.

Now they’ve got three shots at winning once, and the odds are obviously strongly in favor of that happening.