TORONTO – They didn't draw it up exactly like that, but it was a victory no less.
In beating Mike Smith in the final round of the shootout, Joffrey Lupul gave the Maple Leafs two points they so desperately needed. With five losses in the previous six games (and 11 in the previous 15), the ship in Toronto was (and still remains) in danger of veering noisily off track, but with a victory on Thursday night, the positive vibes certainly perked up.
"It starts with one," said Lupul, following the 2-1 win over Phoenix. "We had a pretty good effort tonight. Maybe we weren't our sharpest, but we fought hard and we battled and we got two points. Now you take some positives from it, come to the rink tomorrow feeling a little bit better about ourselves than we did today. We just start building positively."
What they would like and certainly need to build toward is some level of consistency.
The Leafs have dotted a good effort here with a good effort there, only to have subpar, dispiriting performances in the middle. A strong performance against the Kings was followed with a dud in St. Louis. A mesmerizing upset of the Blackhawks was followed by two disappointing efforts against the Penguins and Panthers.
"We've had various challenges and the latest challenge is winning hockey games," Randy Carlyle said before Thursday's victory. "But we've done some good things in there so let's not just focus on the negatives and the biggest negative is we haven't played well enough to win and that's going to have to change. We're going to have to continue to find a way to develop more consistency and make less mistakes than the opposition or the team we're playing against."
Buoyed by a rare goal from their fourth line – Troy Bodie – the Leafs were level, if not ahead of the Coyotes for the opening half of Thursday's game. They kept the action mostly to the perimeter in the defensive zone, limited chances in the so-called critical areas and demonstrated the workmanlike effort that was missing two nights earlier.
Phoenix rallied late in the second and into the third and may have snatched victory entirely – tying the score in the final five minutes on a goal from Martin Hanzal – if not for the 34 saves of James Reimer.
It was the kind of effort, amid an increasingly worrying slump, that the Leafs needed.
"You're always looking for somebody to step up for you and obviously our goaltending has been one of our strongest suits," said Carlyle. "Both guys have really given us A-level quality goaltending all year and tonight was just another example of James Reimer stepping up. We're very, very fortunate to have him."
Reimer was blunt after Tuesday's 3-1 loss to Florida, stating that the Leafs "either have half a team or a full team that don't show up at parts", while noting that injuries and fatigue were "excuses and they're useless".
Making a surprise start (more in Five Points), he backed up those comments with a sturdy performance.
"I wanted to come in here and have a good game," said Reimer. "When you stand up and say stuff you want to back it up with an honest, solid effort."
1. Surprise Start
It appeared that Jonathan Bernier would start against the Coyotes when Thursday's morning skate kicked off, but that changed quickly when the 25-year-old disclosed that he was not at an optimal level physically.
"When Bernier said he wasn't 110 per cent, we said okay that's fine we'll go with Reimer," Carlyle said.
Nursing a minor ailment, according to Carlyle, Bernier hadn't been on the ice on either Tuesday or Wednesday (an off-day for the team, as detailed above) and thus the team felt it unwise to force him in against Phoenix at less than 100 per cent.
Reimer, who allowed three goals on 23 shots in his last start against the Panthers, hadn't made back-to-back starts since late November. He improved to 3-0 in shootouts this season.
"We did a good job of keeping shots to the outside, but he did a really good job of fighting through some screens and battling in there," said Lupul. "That's the one thing we know we can count on Reims for is compete level and battle."
Carlyle gave his team two options following another off-kilter performance against Florida on Tuesday night. "Either you do the workout [that night] or we'll have a practice [Wednesday] and they chose that they'd rather do the half-hour workout after the game and take the day off and then get themselves ready for today," said Carlyle.
Wednesday was no off-day for the coaching staff though. They huddled together for a full-scale evaluation, wanting to determine positives that weren't being accentuated while eliminating some of the negatives simmering amid an increasingly concerning stretch.
They presented that plan to the group on Thursday morning, also emphasizing the need for more aggressiveness on the forecheck and in the defensive zone.
"We will eventually find ways to have success," Carlyle said. "We've got to push [out] everything that is happening outside. That white noise that we talk about has to become more of a reality – it's on the outside of our circle."
3. Team Game
Carlyle's message on Thursday morning also included a pledge for the group to remain aligned with the team structure. "You can't have success in the National Hockey League without having a team that's going to play a system and play a strong team game," he said.
Pointing to the five games that preceded Thursday's effort against Phoenix, Carlyle believed his team had improved on the forecheck, cut down on defensive miscues and allowed far fewer shots against (28 per game). It was the mistakes of individuals outside the system, he deemed, that were the problem.
Case in point, Nazem Kadri's offensive zone turnover which led to the Panthers first goal, Jake Gardiner's indecisiveness with the puck which preceded the second, and Dion Phaneuf's blunder which opened the door on the third.
"And it's cost us," said Carlyle. "You can't have mistakes that are going to continually be committed out there that are going to cost you goals."
4. Methods of Leadership
Lupul, an alternate captain with the Leafs, said the team needed its leadership to set an example during a "really tough stretch of games" and in doing so, play within the aforementioned system.
The tendency, he said, was to try to do more and in doing so, actually hurt the team by doing less.
"You want to step up, but you want to make sure that you're staying with the team structure," said Lupul prior to Thursday's game. "Sometimes it's easy to try and do too much and get off on your own page. You see that often when teams are struggling; guys really want to make an impact and they're doing things that aren't what usually makes them successful. It's a fine line between doing that and going out and just executing a good team game."
5. Fourth Line
Troy Bodie was the only Leaf to beat Smith in regulation. Scoring his first as a Leaf, Bodie squeezed a rebound between the pads of the Phoenix netminder. The 28-year-old saw exactly one shift after that as Carlyle shortened his bench.
"I didn't reward them much after that," said Carlyle. "They didn't play their fourth line and so do we play ours? We just made the decision we were going to stay with the lines that we had and went with it."
Bodie's marker was a rare contribution from the Toronto fourth line.
"Any time you can get a contribution from your fourth line, it's a huge bonus for the rest of your group," Carlyle said. "It elevates their value in the room, their self-worth, and they feel a lot better about themselves and they should be commended."
Bonus Point I – Clarkson
Assigned shutdown duties alongside Jay McClement and Nik Kulemin, David Clarkson played a season-high of nearly 22 minutes against the Coyotes. Though the line often had difficulty with the size of Phoenix's top grouping, which includes Martin Hanzal, Radim Vrbata and Tim Kennedy, Carlyle felt Clarkson made an impact on the game.
"Much more involved," he said.
Bonus Point II – Gardiner
Carlyle met with Jake Gardiner on Thursday morning to address his recent benching against the Panthers. Gardiner remained on the bench for nearly 20 minutes of game action between the second and third periods. "It's not that he's been playing poorly," said Carlyle of the 23-year-old. "He had five or six good, strong games, but in two games, he makes mistakes and the puck ends up in our net – it's hard to ignore as a coach. And I told him that. He feels that the mistakes he made are very easily improved [upon]... nd we agree. He's a talented young player."
Gardiner played 23 minutes against the Coyotes.
3-0 – Record for James Reimer in shootouts this season.
2 – Combined points in the past four games for the top line of Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk.
12 – Combined shots for Kessel, Kadri and van Riemsdyk against the Coyotes.
1 – Regulation wins for the Leafs since Nov. 19.
21:31 – Ice-time for David Clarkson on Thursday, a season-high.
7 – Points in the last seven games for Peter Holland, who added an assist against the Coyotes.
1 – Goal for Troy Bodie with the Leafs, the 28-year-old scoring his first on Thursday night.
17 – Points for Cody Franson this season, first on the Leafs defence.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 23.1% (4th)
Season: 77.6% (27th)
Quote of the Night
"That's why I stayed around the net to take a peek." - James van Riemsdyk, on the shootout goal nearly disallowed on account of an ambiguous replay.
The Leafs host the Red Wings for the first time this season during a Saturday night clash at the ACC.