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Maple Leafs 5, Bruins 2

Bruins get embarrassed

Thomas and Rask scorched by Leafs

Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf (right) outmuscled the Bruins’ Nathan Horton along the boards in the second period. Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf (right) outmuscled the Bruins’ Nathan Horton along the boards in the second period. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press/Associated Press)
By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / March 20, 2011

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TORONTO — OK, it’s official, the Bruins are a mess.

Flat from the start, and never much better than medicore, the forever-in-search-of-a-Stanley-Cup Bruins never found their game last night and ended up suffering an embarrassing 5-2 loss to the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre.

The loss stretched their recent run of mediocre play to 1-3-3 and it featured some very poor defense, spotty goaltending — Tim Thomas was hooked in the second and came back to start the third — and a late third-period injury to captain Zdeno Chara. The towering defenseman took a shot off his left instep with approximately five minutes left while killing a power play, and he hobbled to the bench.

“It’s OK, normal, part of the game,’’ said the 6-foot-9-inch Chara. “Just a hockey play, not a problem.’’

Moments earlier, when asked about the hobbled Chara, coach Claude Julien said the defenseman was icing the foot and it was sore, but didn’t suspect it was a serious injury.

“It’s probably OK,’’ said Julien. “We’ll probably know more tomorrow.’’

What they know for sure right now is they are playing their worst hockey of the season, with the playoffs less than a month on the horizon. They came out ill prepared to take on the Leafs, who didn’t so much run over their opponents as simply skate by them, especially in Toronto’s attacking zone.

The Bruins were slow afoot and slower to react, ultimately leading to their worst loss since a 6-1 embarrassment by the Red Wings Feb. 11. It was a bad weekend set of games with the Wings that led to some significant roster changes by general manager Peter Chiarelli. But the trade deadline is long gone and now Julien has no choice but to wring more out of this wrung-out group.

“We’ve got to put our boots and hard hats on now,’’ said Julien. “We’ve got to find our game.’’

By the end of 40 minutes, the Bruins were out of it, staring at a 5-1 deficit and not resembling a team with a realistic chance of doing damage — or maybe even fogging a mirror? — in the playoffs. Based on the first 40 here, they would be fortunate to survive a first round in the postseason, never mind challenge for their first Cup since ’72.

Not only was their all-around play out of synch, with little purpose and without any bite, they also saw their trusted goalie, Thomas, succumb to the team-wide mediocrity in the second when he allowed a pair of goals (Joey Crabb, Mike Brown) only 29 seconds apart, the Leafs bumping their lead to 4-1.

Brown’s strike, only 8:18 into the second, marked what looked like the end of the night for Thomas, who gave up four goals on only 14 shots. Thomas was tucked too far into his net as the Leafs winger snapped off a routine wrister from the right-wing circle. The shot was barely between Thomas’s legs when Julien called for Tuukka Rask to replace him.

Rask let up Toronto’s fifth goal, a Keith Aulie wrister from the left-wing circle, with 2:37 remaining in the second. And when the third period opened, Thomas was back in net.

Canadian TV speculated that Rask was hooked because he gave his teammates grief after the goal. But Julien, Thomas, and Rask all denied that to be the case. Thomas needed work, said Julien, and given that the score stood 5-1 after 40 minutes — with no bounce back after the call to Rask — the third period offered the chance for Thomas to get some needed minutes.

When asked about the theory on the Canadian telecast, Julien called it “ridiculous.’’

The Leafs opened the scoring with a gorgeous goal by Luke Schenn at 9:44, gave up the equalizer on an Adam McQuaid strike at 11:46, then grabbed the advantage back, 2-1, on Nazem Kadri’s first career goal only 40 seconds after McQuaid connected. Three goals, all in a span of 2:42.

Schenn finished off his highlight reel goal by turning McQuaid inside out in the left-wing circle, the finishing touch to a sensational rush by the defenseman that began just outside his blue line. He made a quick deke at the Boston blue line, carried down left wing, then held off McQuaid with his right arm as he made the turn in on Thomas and dotted the top right corner with a quick snap of the wrists.

McQuaid connected for the deadlock only 20 seconds after a timeout that featured a touching standing ovation for ex-Leaf Tomas Kaberle. The veteran defenseman, dished to Boston Feb. 18, was treated to a video montage of his Leafs career (878 games) during the timeout, and the crowd’s appreciation brought the big Czech to his feet on the Boston bench, allowing him to wave in appreciation.

McQuaid launched a good shot from the right-wing circle, but it was turned back by goalie James Reimer. Upended on the shot, a falling McQuaid shoved the puck toward the crease as he slid toward the end boards, only to see his centering pass ricochet off Dion Phaneuf’s left skate and angle by a surprised Reimer.

Kadri, Toronto’s top pick in the 2009 draft, tipped home the go-ahead goal at 12:26 as he cut through the slot and fended off the much bigger McQuaid just a few feet in front of Thomas’s crease. Crabb sent in the shot from high in the left-wing circle and the crafty Kadri made the tip, keeping his stick just below crossbar level.

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