TORONTO (AP) — David Backes enjoys playing in Toronto. The sights. The sounds. And, getting a hat trick isn’t too shabby, either.
Backes scored his third goal of the game into an empty net to lead the St. Louis Blues to a 5-3 victory Tuesday night that sent the Toronto Maple Leafs to their sixth straight loss.
“There’s something about this barn and this stage,” Backes said. “There’s obviously a special thing about being in Toronto. The buzz in the air and everyone’s talking about the Leafs. Every establishment’s got a neon Leafs sign of some sort.
“This is kind of the mecca for hockey here in Toronto.”
T.J. Oshie and former Leafs forward Alex Steen also scored for St. Louis, which passed Boston for the most points in the NHL with 105.
Ryan Miller made 21 saves to improve to 32-15-3 in his career against Toronto. The Blues have won 10 of 13 games since acquiring Miller and forward Steve Ott from Buffalo before the trade deadline.
Joffrey Lupul, Carl Gunnarsson and James van Riemsdyk scored for Toronto, which dropped out of a playoff spot for the first time since Jan. 14, coupled with Washington’s shootout loss to Los Angeles.
“Certainly, we’re afraid of letting it slip away,” Lupul said. “The whole year we’ve thought we were a playoff team, and we still believe that now. ... There’s reason for concern, but it’s not completely time to panic. We’re still right there.”
The loss ruined the return of Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier, who made 44 saves in his first game since reinjuring his groin on March 13.
“When you get in a slide like this it’s easy to start pin-pointing individuals, which is fair, but as a group we look at it like, if there’s a mistake made by someone, someone else steps up and makes a play for them,” Lupul said. “And we just haven’t been doing quite enough of that right now.”
Bernier helped withstand an early barrage before the Maple Leafs scored first in a game for the first time since March 10 at Anaheim — seven games and six losses ago.
“We have a lot of confidence in our abilities and a belief in ourselves and believe in the guys in the room,” van Riemsdyk said. “This thing is obviously far from over.”
With Brenden Morrow in the box for high-sticking, the Leafs’ second power-play unit cashed in. After getting robbed by Miller at the side of the net, Nazem Kadri batted the puck out of the air and right to Lupul at the side of the net at 11:30 of the first period.
The Leafs’ lead didn’t last long, as Oshie tipped a shot from Roman Polak down and dived to knock the puck in at 15:55.
Had the Leafs been able to keep the score tied at 1 by the first intermission, they might’ve been able to make it a game. Instead, van Riemsdyk took an ill-advised interference penalty in the final minute to set up a memorable miscue by Phaneuf.
With a chance to send the puck down the ice on the penalty kill, Phaneuf wound up twice and held onto it just long enough for Oshie to poke it away. Seconds after the turnover, Backes beat Bernier clean with 32.3 seconds left.
The Blues’ 23 first-period shots were the most the Leafs have given up this season.
“I don’t know,” Lupul said. “We couldn’t break their cycle, we couldn’t get the puck.”
Considering that, their second period was a strong improvement. Unlike the first, when they were hemmed in their own zone and needed Bernier to make big save after big save, the Leafs opened things up on the Bluesand traded some chances.
They couldn’t cash in, but the Blues did, as Backes scored his second of the night at 7:32 after a brilliant pass from Alex Pietrangelo.
At 17:35, Steen beat Phaneuf in a net-front battle and then flipped a back-hand shot past Bernier for his 31st goal.
“If we’re missing motivation, at this time of the year everyone should have some,” Bernier said. “Obviously, we knew it was not going to be easy. That’s a good team out there — they’re first and they showed it tonight.”
Down 4-1, Pietrangelo turned the puck over to Gunnarsson, who blasted a shot by Miller to cut the deficit to two.
Van Riemsdyk added a goal at 15:54 to make it 4-3, Backes’ empty-netter sealed it for St. Louis.
“It was a 5-3 game where I think we could’ve scored 10 goals tonight,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said in a nod to Bernier. “We had so many scoring opportunities, and I thought for the most part until we got careless and started to get fancy around the net instead of burying it that we were really playing one of our top games.”
NOTES: With Bernier back, the Leafs sent G Drew MacIntyre back to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. ... Defenseman Paul Ranger was scratched for the third straight game with a neck injury.