TORONTO — Just two days before, the Blackhawks had enjoyed a game ending in Montreal so perfect it didn’t seem real.
On Saturday, the Hawks suffered a game ending in Toronto so excruciating it didn’t seem real, either.
“That’s the way the hockey gods will come back at you sometimes,” interim coach Derek King quipped.
A fluky bounce off a stanchion between two Scotiabank Arena glass panels — also described as a “garbage bounce” by King and “crazy bounce” by Connor Murphy — fooled Hawks goalie Kevin Lankinen, who was circling behind the net to stop the dump-in, and gave the Maple Leafs an empty net to shoot on with 1:20 left. It awarded them a decidedly unearned 5-4 win.
Worst of all for the Hawks, the Leafs forward who found the puck right in front of him and the net unoccupied was David Kampf, the man whose inability to score with the Hawks last season pushed him to Toronto this season.
“It sucks,” Murphy said. “Anytime you lose late in a game when you’re going well and feeling like we’re going to win it and have momentum, it’s going to sting right away. But you take it for what it’s worth.”
“[Kampf is] Czech; he’s my friend,” Dominik Kubalik said. “I’m happy for him. I would be happier if he would be scoring against somebody else than us.”
King said he didn’t think Lankinen could’ve anticipated the bounce coming and didn’t fault him for not sticking in his net.
The remarkable stroke of misfortune ruined what had otherwise been a valiant road effort by the Hawks against a red-hot Leafs team, owners of a 17-4-1 record since Oct. 26.
The game looked lost when the Leafs took a 4-1 lead early in the second period. Their biggest guns in their loaded arsenal — Auston Matthews, John Tavares and William Nylander — were clicking. The Hawks’ initial sluggishness in contrast, combined with King’s handful of questionable lineup decisions the last few days, seemed to foreshadow the arrival of a crucial period in his gradually lengthening coaching tenure.
But King’s infallible positivity — the one aspect of his coaching style that has been both the most constant and the most effective — again pulled a previously unknown dimension out of this scrappy if often outmatched-on-paper Hawks team.
“We were a little sleepy at the start, and that cost us a little bit,” King said. “But I told them, ‘Keep your heads up. You came back, you battled, you didn’t give up.’ ”
Goals by Murphy, Kubalik and Jake McCabe — made possible by hustle plays by Brandon Hagel and Philipp Kurashev and lots of traffic in front of Leafs goalie Petr Mrazek — rallied the Hawks to a 4-4 tie in the third period.
Dylan Strome, whom King commended for showing emotion and anger in response to his healthy scratch Thursday, put forth one of his best games of the season and easily could’ve added another goal or two. Jonathan Toews looked more like himself, too, after scoring his second goal in as many games in the opening minutes. And the reunited McCabe-Murphy pairing picked up right where it left off.
The Hawks looked firmly on track to earn at least one unexpected point, and potentially two. But then the stanchion incident happened.
“Kinger right away had the -message of taking the positives and realizing you can’t put yourself down like we did at the start of the game,” Murphy said. “There’s a lot to say for how we played the second half of the game.”