TORONTO – The wins haven't come pretty, but for Randy Carlyle and the Leafs the points count all the same.
“Coaches aren't here to cut up wins,” said Carlyle with a lasting grin.
His team rallied for a third straight victory to open the season – a perfect 3-0-0 – outlasting the Senators 5-4 in what proved a wildly entertaining and imperfect home opener at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday evening.
Mason Raymond and Jonathan Bernier highlighted the good in victory, as did a team-wide rally from two goals down midway through the hockey game. Doing so in spite of a shaky start from James Reimer, some wobbly defensive play, and an increasing cast of injuries (and one key suspension) which forced the NHL debuts of three players – including 19-year-old Morgan Rielly – is surely why Carlyle was all smiles after another win, incomplete as it may have been.
“We didn't play to the level we're capable of playing,” he said. “But we still found a way to get two points, so we'll take that and move on.”
The Leafs deserve full credit for scratching out three victories, especially in light of circumstances which included a back-to-back in two fiery road buildings to begin the season. But concerns have to be simmering beneath the surface of all the good, notably a defensive game at even-strength which has often appeared scrambled and sloppy in the opening three games (opponents have averaged 35 shots per game), instability and inexperience on the blue-line accentuating such trouble.
Ottawa scored twice in such instances during a rocky first frame for both teams, adding two more in the second, the fourth and final goal certainly one that Reimer would like back.
“Obviously we didn't play our best hockey game,” said Bernier, “but we found a way again to make it happen. That's what good teams do.”
Because of terrific special teams, solid goaltending and an incredibly potent offence, troubles in such areas last season were often overlooked, but in 2013, the Leafs finished as the fifth-worst defensive team at even-strength (tied with Tampa). They still managed an incredibly successful season, which concluded in the first playoff appearance in nine years, and have gotten off to a quick start this season, but such flaws are likely to become magnified if not addressed.
“When you play as sloppy as we did tonight there's a long list [of concerns],” Carlyle concurred afterward of his team's defensive play. “Obviously we've got to play to a tighter brand of hockey and we know that. They know that. But the good thing is we played poorly, we were down two goals in our building, we found a way to claw back into the game and we won it in a shootout. Are we going to forget about this? No, we're not going to forget about it. But you can't be a taskmaster every day of the week. We've played three hockey games, we've got six points, what more do you want?”
1. Raymond's fast start
Raymond opened the scoring with his second of the season, the 27-year-old capitalizing on the hard-nosed work of Troy Bodie and Dave Bolland. He would add two assists in 19 minutes, teaming with Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul on a lethal second power-play unit which scored twice against a Senators penalty kill that ranked as the NHL's best last season. “Adjusting,” he said of his transition to Toronto. “The more I get out on the ice the better I feel. I'm learning. I'm learning every shift. There's things to learn in different systems, but so far so good.”
A Canuck for six seasons, Raymond would cap a fine evening with the shootout winner, a spin-o-rama that beat Craig Anderson in spite of some controversy. “It's one that seems to raise some debate,” said Raymond of the move, called into question with forward progress seemingly halted. “But nonetheless, it's something that has worked successful for me and if I can use it why not?”
Inked to a professional tryout on the eve of training camp, the Raymond addition has proved increasingly valuable in the early going. In light of the suspension to David Clarkson and an ankle injury for Nikolai Kulemin, the Leafs depth at forward has been robbed, but with Raymond's early impact that has been minimized.
2. Reimer's rocky start
A career's worth of brilliance against the Senators took a hit on Saturday for James Reimer. The 25-year-old was yanked after he allowed four goals on 21 shots, the final marker from Jason Spezza squeezing through the five-hole midway through the second frame. “Some bad luck maybe,” he said of the evening, “but at the same time as a goaltender, you're the last line of defence so you've got to be there and you've got to a find a way to keep the puck out of the net.”
“The rebounds and the pucks were bouncing away from James Reimer versus bouncing for him,” Carlyle said, no better example of that than the Senators third goal from Jared Cowen, a direct result of one leaky rebound from Reimer.
Battling for the No. 1 job, Reimer entered the evening with an 8-1-1 career mark against Ottawa, boasting a 1.69 goals against average and .949 save percentage. But on the night of the opener he got the hook. “I know what kind of team we have in here and I knew we were going to come back so I was a little disappointed in getting pulled,” he chimed afterward.
3. A perfect night for Bernier
Standing in for Reimer, Bernier stopped all 15 shots he faced in regulation and overtime, adding two more stops in the shootout. His quiet and quite effective performance in the crease Saturday mirrored his effort on Wednesday, the 25-year-old making his Leafs debut with a near-perfect 31-save night against the Flyers.
“You always got to be ready for those kind of games and prepare like you play every night,” Bernier said. “I didn't think it was Reims' fault, I just thought [Carlyle] wanted to change the momentum and it worked.”
Early in the third with his team down a goal at 4-3, Bernier stopped a hard-charging Clarke MacArthur, the former Leaf picking off a Morgan Rielly feed and bursting in with speed at the Toronto crease. The stop proved consequential. James van Riemsdyk would score a minute later to knot the score at four.
“The one thing that you notice when he went in, there wasn't a lot of extra rebounds hanging around,” Carlyle said of Bernier. “When he made the save the puck was either in his glove or he was able to freeze it. He controlled the puck which allowed us to box out. There weren't so many wild scrambles around the net.”
Though it's far too early to gain any real window into the goaltending competition this season, Bernier has certainly grasped the initial edge. “It makes it easier,” said Carlyle simply of the impending choice in goal.
“Our main focus is to win games and that's the only thing we're going to focus on,” Bernier added. “We're not going to worry about who's going to play, we just got to support each other.”
4. Rielly debut
Morgan Rielly logged 18 minutes in his NHL debut, partnered with Cody Franson against the Senators. “As the game went on he got better,” said Carlyle of the rookie's performance. “You got to see more of what he's about.”
Rielly and Franson had a challenging first period, the pair caught on the ice for goals against on back-to-back shifts, the more experienced Franson struggling to support his rookie teammate early. The 26-year-old Franson, who was among the Leafs best players in the opening two games, instigated the Senators first goal with a defensive zone giveaway, unable to tie up Cory Conacher on the marker that followed three minutes later.
Perhaps tentative early, Rielly was confident as the game wore on, initiating the offence with his legs by the third frame and into overtime. “On paper it's probably not the greatest game I've ever played,” he said, “but I'm pretty happy with how it went. I felt like I improved as I kept playing.”
“You can see he can separate himself with his skating ability, he can read plays, he just needs to get his feet underneath him at the NHL level,” Carlyle observed.
5. A Carlyle type
Of Dave Bolland, who slid onto a line with Joffrey Lupul and Mason Raymond shortly after the Senators fourth goal, Carlyle recalled an inkling he had previously of the Toronto native's prowess while coaching in Anaheim. Carlyle noticed that when his team played the Blackhawks, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville would select either Selke Trophy winner Jonathan Toews or Bolland to match up with his top guns Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
“The little light goes on,” he said. “You remember those things.”
Bolland's versatility has been a quick plus for the Leafs, his ability to move up and down the lineup with ease a definite asset.
Though he winced in pain in the moment, Nik Kulemin didn't appear injured when a puck struck his ankle at practice on Friday. But the result was a small broken bone, one that will sideline the 27-year-old for at least the next two weeks, the initial stage of which will see him in a walking boot.
Already down the suspended David Clarkson and additionally injured Frazer McLaren, the Leafs depth up front is being tested in a hurry. Spencer Abbott briefly filled the void Kulemin previously occupied alongside Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul on Saturday, the 25-year-old Hamilton native making his NHL debut against the Senators.
The Leafs will miss the two-way presence Kulemin offers, especially on the penalty kill, where he teamed with Jay McClement on the first forward unit. “We're going to need other people to step up and fill those minutes,” Carlyle said, Raymond, Bolland, van Riemsdyk among the options for increased opportunity.
18:07 – Ice-time for Morgan Rielly in his NHL debut.
26.7 – Percentage for the Leafs power-play through three games, including a 2-6 showing against the Senators, who owned the top-ranked penalty kill last season.
3-1-1 – Leafs record in the past five home openers.
13-22 – Proficiency for Dave Bolland in the faceoff circle.
.806 – Save percentage for James Reimer.
7 – Shots for Joffrey Lupul, who scored his first of the season, adding an assist.
24:46 – Ice-time for Phil Kessel to lead all Leaf forwards.
Special Teams Capsule
Quote of the Night
“How could they say something unkind about me?”
-Randy Carlyle, asked about critical comments from former Leaf Clarke MacArthur.
The Leafs get their first look at first overall pick Nathan MacKinnon when the Avalanche visit Toronto on Tuesday night.