MONTREAL – It was an unusually new experience for Mikhail Grabovski on Saturday night.
The 28-year-old scored twice to snap a 14-game goal drought, also adding an assist in Randy Carlyle's first game behind the bench with the Leafs, a 3-1 victory over the Canadiens at the Bell Centre.
"Feel like I play with a new team," he told TSN.ca following the game. "I never had that before in my life, never changed the coach in a season so for me I feel like I'm traded."
A willful and speedy presence between Matt Frattin and Clarke MacArthur, Grabovski scored for the first time since January 31, adding a second marker to hit the 20-goal plateau for the third time in his career. More importantly for the Leafs was the two points gained in the win, just their second in the last 12 games (2-9-1) and first under Carlyle, who replaced Ron Wilson on Friday evening.
"It's obviously a nice way to start," Carlyle said, noting the defensive performance which saw Montreal limited to 22 shots. "I thought our team put an effort and they put it on the line for us…I asked them to skate, to be themselves, to not worry about anything other than what our focus is and that was the hockey game tonight."
The win was badly needed.
Suffering from a dramatic decline which saw them drop 10 of the previous 11 games – ultimately spelling the end for Wilson in Toronto – the Leafs desperately needed something positive to break their recent spell. Still 12th in the Eastern Conference (67 points), the club sits three points back of the Jets for the eighth and final playoff spot with 17 games to go.
"I'm so happy for our team because [it's an] important game and important win for [the] new staff," Grabovski concluded. "We can't give up right now. We have [a] chance. We need to keep going."
1. Carlyle had one primary objective in his first game behind the bench with the Leafs. "They're a skating hockey club and they've got to get on their horse and start to skate," he explained Saturday morning. Speed was evident throughtout the victory over Montreal, an urgent debut in front of the new head coach. "Message to the players was 'You got a chance to make a first impression. Don't leave anything in the box here'." Carlyle said before the game. "We're looking for people that are going to stand up and come out and play with a lot of heart, a lot of determination. Play the game the way we want you to play it and you will be rewarded." One such group on Saturday was the newly formed trio of David Steckel, Tim Connolly and Nikolai Kulemin. "The one thing that we've asked of that group specific," Carlyle explained, "took them aside and talked to them about, 'Hey, we need some safe minutes out of you. We need some grind minutes out of you. You're going to play up and you're going to get more minutes probably tonight than you've had in a while, but you've got to deliver on your end. This is your opportunity. You have a new coach and his expectations are a little different than the last person, that's just the difference in the way it is.'" All three players logged over 14 minutes in the win.
2. One player's first impression of Carlyle: extremely positive on the bench and unfailingly aggressive matching lines, specifically the Grabovski unit opposite the Canadiens top line of Erik Cole, Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais.
3. Carlyle joined Brian Burke for a meeting with players at the team hotel on Friday evening, a conversation that was described by those who spoke to TSN.ca as tense and not without emotion. Players were caught off-guard by the timing of the firing, also well-aware of Burke's history with Wilson and the difficulty of his decision. "Initially the tone was not too great," Joffrey Lupul said of the meeting. "We take full responsibility for Ron losing his job. A lot of guys in this room like Ron a lot and have played for him for a long time so it's tough to see him leave. But Randy came in – it was just a short meeting – talked about some changes we were going to make from a systems standpoint, talked about it being a good chance for a lot of guys to make a first impression...I think a lot of guys are looking at it as a real good opportunity for them." Mike Komisarek is likely in that boat. A healthy scratch 12 times this season, Komisarek logged over 16 minutes in his first game under Carlyle.
4. One notable and immediate difference between Wilson and Carlyle was the latter's decision to speak with the team afterward. "I always do," Carlyle said. "I want them to leave the rink [and] know how I felt about their performance." Schooled under Pat Quinn – who operated in a similar manner – Wilson rarely if ever addressed his team following a game, win or lose. Said Frattin of Carlyle's message post-game, "He thought we played a pretty good game, but we've just got to get back at practice and start working on our systems."
5. Earlier this season, Lupul told TSN.ca that the trade from Anaheim to Toronto last season – just months after his return from a serious back injury – left him hurt and surprised. "I came back and was kind of just an afterthought there and didn't really get the chance that I felt I deserved," he said in late October. "They thought other players were better than me. I look at those players now and I can tell you they're probably not." Carlyle was the head coach of the Ducks at the time of Lupul's departure. The two have looked to mend fences quickly, speaking briefly on Friday. "We had a fine relationship for the most part, but we said whatever happened in the past is the past," Lupul explained Saturday morning. "This is a new team for both of us, a new opportunity for everyone…I know he's fine with the situation and I'm definitely excited about it too." Carlyle conceded that he failed to utilize Lupul properly upon his return from injury. "That's a mistake that we made and I made and I take responsibility for that," Carlyle said. "I've talked to Joffrey Lupul about it. That is water under the bridge."
Grabovski now has four goals and nine assists in 11 games as a Leaf at the Bell Centre. "He's a small guy, but he's got a lot of heart," Frattin told TSN.ca. "He's one of those guys that will never back down and he definitely didn't do that today and [the team] got a couple points off of it." Added Carlyle, "He's like the energizer bunny, he just keeps going."…Jonas Gustavsson made 21 saves for the win, his first since January 24. "I think the goaltender gave us the goaltending that's required to win," Carlyle said. "And that's what we ask of our goalies; our goaltenders don't have to win you hockey games, they just have to give you a chance and that's what I thought he did."…The Leafs had given up four or more against in eight of the previous 11…Frattin logged a career-high 18:23, scoring his sixth goal of the season, also adding an assist on Grabovski's second of the night…Mike Brown played only four shifts after a first period fight with Brad Staubitz, bothered by neck stiffness...All six defenceman played at least 16 minutes, Luke Schenn finishing on the low-end at 16:17, Dion Phaneuf leading the way at 26:25.