BY: Jeff Schneberk @Game7overtime
I think that a Phil Kessel ‘Superman’ goal when he raced the entire length of the ice and beat NJ goaltender Corey Schneider was exactly what the Leafs and the entire City of Toronto desperately needed.
New Jersey would wind up tying the game at the 15:00 minute mark of the third period (five minutes left), then it was back to playing New Jersey Devils hockey.
That same type of hockey that helped them to win the Stanley Cup the last time they won it (2002-03).
That wasn’t good for Toronto, or anyone else that plays the no-name Devils.
Toronto prevailed of course, winning 2-1 thanks to James Van Riemsdyk’s shootout effort.
But it did little to convince anyone that the Leafs absorbed the back-to-the-fundamentals message that had been incessantly delivered by head coach Randy Carlyle
During a rare open week of practice. Friday’s circumstances favoured the Leafs in a zillion ways. Toronto hadn’t played since Saturday’s 4-0 loss in Vancouver. The Devils were playing their second game in as many nights. Toronto had produced 10 wins and 20 points in their opening 15 games.
Head Coach Randy Carlyle stressed afterwards that Leafs forced six Devils into taking penalties.
The gutted Devils, whose recent personnel depletion had seen prized forward David Clarkson flee to the Maple Leafs in free agency and star player Ilya Kovalchuk retire to the Russian league, had managed just four victories and 12 points in the same number of outings. Zach Parise is long gone and Patrick Elias was injured.
And yet for much of the night — before Phil Kessel potted the marvelous power-play goal that gave the home team a 1-0 lead midway through the third period and had Carlyle name-checking the wind-up rushes of hall of
famer Frank Mahovlich — the Leafs looked like a team struggling to shake off rust. Meanwhile the Devils, who outshot Toronto 35-28, spent long stretches of five-on-five play controlling the puck in the home zone. Solid goaltending from Jonathan Bernier kept the Devils off the board until the
Toronto netminder made a rare mistake with about five minutes to go in the third period; on the power-play goal by Michael Ryder that tied the game 1-1, the puck took a strange bounce off Bernier’s paddle and found the top corner.
Credit Cory Schneider with the save of the night that repelled a Leafs 3-on-1 in overtime, Kessel thwarted by a split-padded reach across the crease. James van Riemsdyk scored the shootout winner.
Carlyle, for his part, stuck to accentuating the positives. He said he was pleased that the Leafs had drawn six power plays — this after averaging just 2.5 man advantage situations in the previous half-dozen games. The coach said it was a hint, albeit a small one, that the team’s blase 5-on-5 play was improving.
“(Drawing those penalties indicated) we were doing things right as far as getting the puck into their zone, creating more offensive zone time,” Carlyle said. “But it’s only a stepping stone for our club.”
Said centreman Nazem Kadri: “We’re slowly getting it.”
Not that the Leafs weren’t dealing with their own set of issues. Friday was their first game since centreman Dave Bolland severed a tendon that is expected to keep him out of the lineup for an extended period. They were also without Tyler Bozak, who missed his fifth straight game with a hamstring injury that won’t see him back in blue and white until Nov. 21 at the earliest.
Van Riemsdyk, a career winger charged with playing centre during the shortage, flashed his obvious inexperience in the middle. He lost nine of 13 faceoffs. But his line, flanked by Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, produced some of Toronto’s only credible offence.
Clarkson, playing in his first game against his old team, also nearly did some damage, narrowly missing on a couple of glorious chances in the game’s opening minutes.
Despite widespread speculation that Morgan Rielly would be a healthy scratch — this after a substandard effort in Vancouver — he was in the lineup. With forward Colton Orr out with an unspecified injury, the Leafs ran with seven defencemen, among them Mark Fraser, who returned after missing 13 games with a bum knee.
All week Carlyle had been asking his team to commit to the game’s meat and potatoes. Move the puck quickly and quit turning it over, the coach implored his team — and when you do give it up, hit somebody.
“We realize there’s a lot of positives (including special teams and goaltending). But we want to point out the negatives,” Kadri said. “We’re making turnovers in crucial areas. Our forecheck hasn’t been nearly as good as it has to be. Our neutral-zone play — just letting teams attack us. We’re receiving the game when we’re not playing well. And a lot of times that results in being outshot and being out-chanced.”
As Carlyle said this week: “It’s not just wins — we need more compete level, we need more doggedness around the puck. It all has to go up . . . I think we have to get back to a more workmanlike game versus the cute game that we’ve been trying to play.”