PHILADELPHIA – Randy Carlyle wanted his team to remove the “scar” of a bitter loss.
And with full force and determination, they did just that, outmuscling the Flyers with a gritty 4-2 victory at Wells Fargo Center on Monday evening, their second win in two tries against Philadelphia this season.
“We talked about the scar from the other night,” Carlyle said, “and we wanted to make sure that we could flush that with our effort.”
Scattered in a last minute road loss in Ottawa two nights earlier, the Leafs emerged with widespread hostility and muscle, timely offence, sturdy goaltending and an ever-stingy penalty kill. Performed opposite an imposing and destructive opponent (winners of three of four) in a fiery visiting rink, it was surely one of their more impressive victories of the season.
“You've got to give our guys credit,” Carlyle continued, “they battled, and they came in and went toe to toe with a pretty good hockey team over there.”
“It was a big response game,” Dion Phaneuf noted afterward. “We played a solid road game, didn't give up a whole lot, and capitalized on our opportunities. It was a big bounce-back game for sure.”
The Leafs have lost back-to-back games just twice all season – their longest losing streak is two – never dipping into the waters of a deep slide. Clunkers like Saturday's defeat in Ottawa have typically been followed with efforts such as this, a reversion to the structured game which has reaped success.
“That's the type of game we need to play,” Jay McClement agreed of Monday's performance. “We need to burn that into our memory and make sure we do that every night.”
1. Stingy penalty kill
Standing prominently in victory was another strong effort from the Leafs penalty kill, up to 82.6% for the year and 15th best overall. The Flyers entered the night with the league's ninth best power-play – red-hot with six goals in the last five games – but were stymied on five of six opportunities against the Leafs, managing just three shots.
“It's a credit to the players,” Carlyle said, also noting the work of assistant coach Scott Gordon in the gradual improvement. “Penalty killing is more about sacrificing and hard work; you've got to outwork the opposition's power-play.”
Carlyle rotates a group of six forwards and five defencemen on the special teams unit, a group that has now killed off 34 of 37 (92%) opportunities in the past 10 games.
“Nothing more than really just us determining to tighten up,” Mark Fraser said. “Probably about a month or a few weeks ago, we pretty much had been giving up a goal shorthanded a game and we just collectively as a group decided ‘Enough is enough'.” Added McClement, “Goaltending is one of the biggest things; usually you need a save on every kill and we've been getting that.”
Additionally critical is the work of Tyler Bozak on the draw. Bozak leads the NHL with 50 shorthanded faceoff wins.
2. Signs of Grabovski breaking out?
With his third goal in the past four games, Mikhail Grabovski iced the game-winner for the Leafs on Monday, a backhand that meandered past Ilya Bryzgalov. Dry in his production for much of the year, opportunities are gradually increasing for the 29-year-old.
“The scoring seems to have lightened him up,” Carlyle said of Grabovski, who is up to six goals this season. “He skated much better. You could really notice he was putting pressure on the puck in some of the situations being the first guy down the ice. That's what we've got to see; that urgency, that skating where he's really tracking the puck.”
Grabovski actually logged only 13-plus minutes against the Flyers – his second lowest total of the season – also finishing 8-14 in the faceoff circle.
3. Hostility Factor
Now boasting a league-leading 22 fights this season after Mike Brown dropped the gloves in the opening frame with Tye McGinn, the Leafs are certainly not lacking in hostility. Carlye noted that Brown, who left the game in the third period with a lower-body injury, set the tone with his fifth scrap of the year.
"We weren't going to be pushed around," Carlyle said. "It doesn't matter what building we go into. We have enough people that we feel comfortable we can go into any building and compete."
4. Kulemin's rare offensive flourish
With 61 goals in his first 233 NHL games, Nik Kulemin had been scoring at a rate of once every 3.8 games. His output has slowed considerably since. Now with nine goals in his last 90 games – including his second of the season on Monday – the 26-year-old has crawled to pace of one goal for every 10 games.
“I think it's all little things coming together,” he told TSN.ca before the game. “I don't shoot a lot and I get a lot of chances [where] I don't score goals.”
Never a high-volume shooter, Kulemin's shot totals this season (1.9/game) fall just about in line with those of his first four years in the league (1.8/game). The touch, which allowed him to flourish offensively early in his Leaf career, has simply vanished aside from the odd goal.
“I'm happy to score,” he said after the Flyers win. “It's a good game for us. Every point [is] important this year because of the short season. Not many games to get points [from]. I'm happy to win on the road again and keep going from this.”
It might surprise some to note that Kulemin actually sits fourth (tied with Bozak) in team scoring with 12 points, despite the shutdown role he is tasked with. Because he and Grabovski typically start most of their shifts in the defensive zone, they expend most of their energy preventing goals rather than creating them.
“We generate some chances,” Kulemin noted, “but it's hard sometimes too; if you get a lot of defensive zone time, it's hard to generate offence after.”
“I don't really care about points,” he continued. “It's a team game and the team's playing well now. I try to generate points every game to help the team win, but first of all it's defence and don't give up a lot of goals against. That's our role on the team.”
5. Kadri's creations
With a pair of assists against the Flyers, Nazem Kadri regained sole control of the Leafs scoring lead, now with 17 points in 20 games this season. Draped by a swarm of Flyers, Kadri feathered a backhand pass to Kulemin for Toronto's second goal, adding another helper to the cause on Grabovski's game-winner.
“Once he gets in that offensive zone he can find people and he does things that are special,” Carlyle said. “You don't want to ever take that creativity away from him.” The 22-year-old is also tied for the team lead with 12 assists. Quote of the Night
“Once he gets in that offensive zone he can find people and he does things that are special. You don't want to ever take that creativity away from him.”
-Randy Carlyle, on Nazem Kadri.
22: Fights for the Leafs this season, most in the NHL. 50: Shorthanded faceoff wins for Tyler Bozak.
34-37: Leafs penalty kill over the past 10 games.
2: Assists for Carl Gunnarsson, his second multi-point night of the year.
5-3-0: Record for Ben Scrivens in February.
8-4-0: Leafs record on the road.
37-27: Leafs goals for-against on the road.
22:34: Carl Gunnarsson.
Joffrey Lupul (forearm): 17 games
James Reimer (knee): 6 games
Matt Frattin (knee): 6 games
Colton Orr (lower-body): 3 games
The Leafs return home to host the Canadiens at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night, the first end of a back-to-back set with the Islanders to follow in Long Island on Thursday.