MONTREAL – On a blustery winter weekend, the Leafs stormed into the Bell Centre, pumped the Canadiens by a 6-0 final and completed a perfect three-game road trip.
With a slew of offence from six different goal-scorers, sturdy goaltending from James Reimer – a 37-save shutout – a mostly tidy defensive effort, and a whole lot of punch and bravado, the road strong Leafs were able to stamp out their division rivals for the second time this season, winning for the sixth time in seven trips away from the Air Canada Centre this year.
"We had everybody make a contribution," Randy Carlyle said afterward, "right from our goaltender through our defence through our forwards, it's a complete team effort tonight."
After close one-goal wins in Washington and Winnipeg, the Leafs blasted the home side with a one-sided barrage in the opening frame, scoring twice on goals from Leo Komarov – his first in the NHL – and Tyler Bozak. A perfect 20-save effort from Reimer in the middle frame compounded by a pair of goals from James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel put the game out of reach, thrusting the final frame into something of a circus.
With the Leafs up 5-0 and tensions running high for a Montreal squad on course for its third straight loss, Mikhail Grabovski and Brandon Prust became entangled amid a growing scrum. Before Grabovski knew it, Prust – he of 87 career NHL regular season fights – fired a punch and set off fireworks. He and Prust both got the gate, joined by Max Pacioretty, who claimed to have been bitten by Grabovski in the madness. "They make me mad," Grabovski told TSN.ca via text after the game. Chirping between the two benches predictably ensued, notably Colton Orr engaged in conversation with Montreal captain Brian Gionta, a precursor perhaps of what was to come.
With the game in hand, the building bubbling and his intent probably far from innocent, Orr nearly popped Tomas Plekanec in the neutral zone, just missing in a nearly violent knee-on-knee collision. Another scrum ensued and in a matter of seconds, Orr dropped Rene Bourque with a one-punch knockout. Verbal jousting between the two benches continued, including heated chatter with Carlyle and Canadiens coach Michel Therrien. "Prust, we know what kind of player he is and he goes out and cheap shots Grabovski, what are we supposed to do?" Carlyle said emphatically afterward. "We're not supposed to play the rest of our players the rest of the night? They've got another thing coming, that's not happening to our group."
While sparingly used in fourth-line duty on most nights, it was clear Saturday why Carlyle prefers to have a few rough edges in his lineup. And while the end of game theatrics will surely draw plenty of attention, the Leafs performance was probably as complete as they've had all year. They were feisty and physical, found offence from a variety of different sources, enjoyed strong special teams – two powerplay goals and a perfect penalty kill – and saw any quality opportunities the Canadiens could muster snuffed out by Reimer.
But as Carlyle noted before the game, the Leafs remain a 'work in progress' in this hasty 48-game schedule, their ongoing struggles at home – one win in five tries – a coming reminder of that.
1. Road Dominance
While they've struggled to gain any advantage at the Air Canada Centre, the Leafs continue to string together wins on the road, now six for seven so far this year. They've outscored opponents 25-15 in that span, including four victories by a goal. "You've got to give yourself a chance," Carlyle said of his team's ability to win close games on the road. "That's what we've tried to install here is a mandate that we're not going to play that loose hockey. It's not shutdown hockey as you would say, we want to be aggressive on the forecheck, we want to make sure that we [keep] as much of the quality offensive chances to the outside, no second and third opportunities … [And] we've been able to keep our shot totals down in the games that we've played well on the road; we've kept teams to under 30. Those are all the positives, but again … we're not here claiming we're anything. We're continuing to be a work in progress."
2. Reimer's return to Montreal
In what probably seems like a long ago nightmare, James Reimer returned as a starter to the Bell Centre for the first time since October 22, 2011. It was on that night that Gionta memorably bumped the Leafs netminder, sending him into a whirlwind season complete with lingering head injuries and poor performance. The 24-year-old was perfect in his return Saturday. "What happened last year, it's a thing of the past," he said afterward. "Maybe it would've been a good storyline, but for me honestly I wasn't thinking about it. I was just trying to go out there and get another win. This has been a good road trip for us and we wanted to finish it off on a good note." Off to a very strong start this season, Reimer now ranks 8th league-wide with a hearty .929 save percentage. "I feel like I keep getting better every game," he said. "At this point I hope that doesn't stop. I hope right til the end of the season I keep feeling better and getting better."
3. Komarov hunts for offence
In conversation with TSN.ca on Saturday morning, Leo Komarov picked out one area of his game that he felt could improve. "I'm not the player who's going to score 50 goals in this league, but hope at least one goal," he said. "That's maybe the point I've got to improve myself and start to get some scoring chances." Fast-forward to the 59-second mark of the opening frame against Montreal – joined by new linemates Grabovski and Nik Kulemin – and the 26-year-old had finally scored his first NHL goal, capping a rush by Kulemin. Energy and a raw physical game generally encompass the expectations for Komarov, but he has shown hints of offence in the past. During a 14-game stint with the Marlies this past fall, Komarov tallied six goals and nine points.
4. MacArthur Struggles
Clarke MacArthur is trying to keep his offensive struggles off the mind. "The more I think about it, it's always the worst" he told TSN.ca before Saturday's game. A 20-goal man in back-to-back seasons, MacArthur has gone pointless in 8 of 9 games this year and has just one goal and one assist to his name, a bothersome finger injury also sidelining him for three games. "They're going to come," he said, noting past dry periods and his ability to overcome them. "Just have to keep going to the net. It's something I've always been able to do, just got to have faith that it will come back." Robbed on a point-blank chance by Ondrej Pavelec in Winnipeg on Thursday, MacArthur had a number of prime opportunities on Carey Price, including a puck that rolled on the goal-line in the first, but he left again empty-handed. The 27-year-old is an unrestricted free agent following the season – concluding a two-year deal for $6.5 million – making his efforts in this shortened schedule critical to determining his value within the organization moving forward.
5. van Riemsdyk stepping forward
Set to clash with his former team for the first time in Toronto on Monday, van Riemsdyk continues to blossom for the Leafs, potting a goal and an assist against the Canadiens on Saturday. The 23-year-old has now amassed seven goals and nine points in his last 10 games, sitting second on the team in scoring. Asked what had surprised him most about his short tenure with the Leafs, van Riemsdyk offered a thoughtful response. "I wouldn't call it a surprise, but the winning mentality we have," he said. "I thought last year these guys had a really good team, they got off to a great start, and then obviously some things happened, some bad bounces and we don't end up making the playoffs. But I really like the way we seem to respond when we hit adversity."
Quote of the Night I
"We've got to look after business. All the complaining they want to do about it, the whole thing was started by what we thought was one player."
-Carlyle, on the Prust incident and ensuing fireworks.
Quote of the Night II
"Prust, we know what kind of player he is and he goes out and cheap shots Grabovski, what are we supposed to do? We're not supposed to play the rest of our players the rest of the night? They've got another thing coming, that's not happening to our group."
-More Carlyle, on the Prust incident.
Quote of the Night III
"They fire coaches when you don't play sound defensively and you don't have success. What would you do? You would adopt a defensive system and you would want to try and implement something that gives yourself a chance and that's what everybody's trying to do…you want to give yourself a chance to win, don't beat yourself."
-Carlyle, on why grinding, defensive hockey is becoming more and more popular.
10 – Points for Phil Kessel, now leading the Leafs in scoring, adding a goal and an assist to his resume on Saturday.
Stat Watch II
1 – Dion Phaneuf ended a 10-game pointless drought with his first goal of the season.
Stat Watch III
83% - Bozak in the faceoff circle against the Canadiens, winning 19 of 23 draws.
Stat Watch IV
8-8 – Leafs penalty kill the past two games, this after yielding four goals in the two games previous.
20:22 – Season-high for Cody Franson.
Dealt to Philadelphia in exchange for van Riemsdyk in June, Luke Schenn returns to Toronto for the first time as the Flyers visit the ACC.