TORONTO – Days after his team suffered its worst loss of a young season, Randy Carlyle spoke sharply of the need for change.
"Our level of work has to go up," said Carlyle on Thursday. "We've stated that and we've (told) our players that the message is going to start to be delivered in a different manner if we're not going to get the results that we're looking for. It's not just about wins; it's about how we play."
Consider the effort on Friday a step in the right direction for the head coach.
James van Riemsdyk scored the lone shootout goal to push the Leafs past the Devils during Hall of Fame night at the ACC. Most impressive to Carlyle in victory was the general abandonment of "cute" play that had wreaked havoc for much of the early season, replaced by simplicity that more closely resembled the template preferred by the coaching staff.
"We drew six power-plays," said Carlyle. "So we were doing things right as far as getting the puck into the zone, creating more offensive zone time, playing more of a chip and support game.
"We haven't done that in a while," he continued. "We know that our special teams have been good, we know our goaltending has been good, but our 5-on-5 play needed addressing. It's only a stepping stone for our hockey club."
Though they mustered only 14 shots at even-strength (according to extraskater.com) – compared with 28 for the Devils – the Leafs managed to grind in the New Jersey end for extended sequences. They generated more than a handful of high-quality opportunities against Cory Schneider and secured the aforementioned six power-plays, which matched a season-high.
Employing the man advantage, Phil Kessel finally broke what lingered as a scoreless deadlock midway through the third with a slingshot end-to-end effort. It was the precisely the kind of game-changing goal that reaped the 26-year-old an eight-year contract before the season began.
"Those are difference-maker goals," said Carlyle of Kessel's 10th marker this season. "It reminded me of Frank Mahovlich, the windup, come back inside your own line and attack. That's old-time hockey, I mean real old-time hockey."
Michael Ryder would even the score awkwardly mere minutes later. From atop the left faceoff circle, the Devils winger harmlessly threw a puck at Jonathan Bernier, one that the Leafs goaltender attempted to steer into the corner only for it to leap upwards and into the net.
"I didn't want to have a shutout I guess," said Bernier with a laugh.
The 25-year-old made 34 saves otherwise, adding a perfect 3-for-3 effort in the shootout to preserve victory.
Carlyle was visibly peeved with his team's effort six days earlier in a 4-0 loss to Vancouver, calling it the worst game of the season. With three practices and a slew of video and instruction in the days that followed he harped on the turnovers his team had committed in critical areas; he stressed the need for a feistier forecheck; he wanted more "doggedness" on the puck and much more of the chip-and-chase game that finally arose against the Devils.
Neither perfect nor pretty, it was a step in the right direction.
1. JVR at centre
James van Riemsdyk lined up at centre for the first time in the NHL and first time in four years. Predictably, the 24-year-old appeared uncomfortable and indecisive at times. "I thought he did fine," Carlyle said afterward. "The issue for him is going to be more about keep his feet moving in the defensive zone. If he's going to go and finish a check he's got to have some urgency in getting over to support our defencemen from a defensive side. I thought a few times, and he even spoke to it, that he was watching versus reacting and that's natural."
Though he accepted and understood the move to centre in light of injuries to Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland, van Riemsdyk rarely sounded enthused by the change, nor the sizeable adjustment it required. But with few better options, he was pressed into duty, playing alongside Kessel and Joffrey Lupul on Friday night.
"If he says no then it's not going to work," Carlyle said before the game. "It's 110 per cent his buy-in. We can say all we want as coaches and say push him there and if he says no what do you do? It's up to him."
Totaling 22 minutes and the shootout winner, van Riemsdyk won 6 of 15 faceoffs.
2. Clarkson versus New Jersey
David Clarkson played 426 games for the Devils and faced them for the first time as a Leaf on Friday. Teammates in New Jersey, Mark Fraser explained what Clarkson, at his best, can do to rattle opponents. "He's a guy who's able to get under guys' skin and he does it in a physical manner and he can do it with his skill," said Fraser, "but when he's really a nuisance or we'll call him a rat to the other team is when he's at his best."
Maybe the most effective trio for the Leafs against New Jersey, Clarkson joined Nazem Kadri and Mason Raymond on Friday. The 30-year-old totaled 20 minutes, his two best offensive opportunities coming in the opening minutes on Schneider, including one that squeaked through five-hole before trickling just wide.
Clarkson has yet to score as a Leaf, mustering just one assist in six games.
3. Kessel, Lupul reunited
Lost in the news of van Riemsdyk shifting to centre was the reuniting of Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. The pair formed one of the most lethal partnerships in hockey for nearly two years; linemates from Mar. 13, 2011 until Jan. 23, 2013.
"I've never played on a line with anyone for that long," said Lupul before Friday's game. "I'd like to think we're both a little bit better players now than we were then when we played together. Hopefully we can pick up where we left off."
Both had career years and were first-time All-Stars in their first full season together (2011-2012). Kessel finished with a career-high 37 goals and 82 points, Lupul totaling a career-high 67 points in 66 games.
"I think offensively we can read off each other pretty well," Lupul said of chemistry with Kessel. "I had or hopefully still have a good understanding of where Phil's going to be, especially in the neutral zone [I] try and get him the puck with speed, which is where he creates the majority of his chances. I think that's where we had some success."
An underrated aspect of the 26-year-old's game, Kessel had a career-high 45 assists alongside Lupul. "Obviously we both probably are scorers first," Lupul continued. "But, especially with Phil, his playmaking can get under looked. I think everyone is expecting him to let go the big shot [but] he's quite a good playmaker as well."
They remained linemates when the lockout-shortened 2013 began, but when a broken right forearm sidelined Lupul for 25 games, he was replaced on the top unit by van Riemsdyk, who would compile 18 goals in 48 games.
4. Smithson joins Leafs
Jerred Smithson played in his 589th NHL game Friday and his first with the Leafs. Previously with the Marlies on a pro tryout, Smithson was inked to a one-year contract for the veteran's minimum ($550,000) on Wednesday. The 34-year-old spent 497 games previously with the Nashville Predators during which time Carlyle, formerly the Ducks head coach, became familiar with him.
"It goes back to one of those situations where you always take note of who the opposition coach puts on the ice," Carlyle said Thursday of the 6-foot-3, 209 pound Smithson. "And he was one of the guys that took a lot of faceoffs and played a lot of defensive situations against our big guys."
Down two of their top centres, Bozak (hamstring) and Bolland (ankle), the Leafs looked to Smithson to help stem the void at centre. The organization valued his experience, faceoff acumen, penalty killing ability, size, and physicality. Smithson spent last season split between Florida and Edmonton, unable to land a job during the cap crunch this summer.
"Being away from the game for those few months and missing training camp was frustrating," said Smithson, who earned a fan in Steve Spott during seven games with the Marlies. "To get back with a team and to play games I was just really focusing on getting my conditioning and timing back down there."
Compiling a 55 per cent mark on the draw in 2013, Smithson could be a valuable addition in the faceoff circle. Bozak and Bolland assumed 65 per cent of the team's faceoffs prior to Friday, leaving only Nazem Kadri (43 per cent), Jay McClement (54 per cent) and the inexperienced van Riemsdyk (63 career faceoffs before Friday).
Smithson won 8 of 9 faceoffs against the Devils in his Toronto debut, seeing a majority of his 10 minutes on the penalty kill.
5. Fraser returns
Mark Fraser returned from a 13-game stint on injured reserve – left knee – paired with Paul Ranger in his third game this season. The 27-year-old first injured the knee against the Flyers on Oct. 2, hit blindly by former Leaf Jay Rosehill. "It wasn't really until I was in the penalty box that I started feeling it," said Fraser, who was whistled for high-sticking on the play. "I had my foot up on the bench trying to flex my quad [and] thinking my knee's sore, maybe I can stretch this out." Once back on the ice, "I tried to take a stride, because we were still shorthanded when I got on the ice, as soon I knew I couldn't really push hard I knew something was up."
He was diagnosed with a grade-2 MCL tear. The injury required weeks of rest and rehab. "Once you're able to get back onto the ice you're just limited," he said. "A lot of the pain's gone away, but you just protect it, you don't want to push yourself in a manner that stresses it and it needs to be stressed for one thing, to get comfortable with it."
It was expected that 19-year-old Morgan Rielly would sit in Fraser's return, but with a last minute injury to Colton Orr – and no other bodies up front – Rielly remained in the lineup as the seventh defenceman. "He's made some mistakes as every member of our hockey club has," Carlyle said of Rielly on Thursday. "I don't like to say that a young player cutting his teeth in the NHL is experiencing anything other than life in the NHL. We have veteran people that are making the same amount of mistakes or the same type of mistakes and they get a pass. And what we'd like to do is make sure Morgan understands, as every player has to understand, that in certain situations those mistakes are not ones that we're going to tolerate."
6 – Power-plays for the Leafs on Friday, matching a season-high.
.936 – Save percentage for Jonathan Bernier this season, good for sixth-best overall.
24:02 – Minutes for Mason Raymond against the Devils.
27:06 – Minutes for Dion Phaneuf against the Devils, a season-high.
65 per cent – Faceoff burden injured centres Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland had assumed for Leafs prior to Friday evening.
426 – Number of games David Clarkson played for the Devils prior to joining the Leafs.
0 – Number of goals for Clarkson this season.
63 – Career faceoffs for James van Riemsdyk entering Friday's game.
15 - Total faceoffs for van Riemsdyk versus the Devils.
8-9 – Jerred Smithson on the draw in his Leafs debut.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 22.8 per cent
Season: 86.2 per cent
Quote of the Night
"I didn't want to have a shutout I guess."
-Jonathan Bernier on the lone goal he allowed against the Devils.
The Leafs return to the scene of their Game 7 defeat last May, set to face the Bruins in Boston for the first time this season.