TORONTO - Back in the summer months, when Randy Carlyle and his coaching staff were playing around with the organizational depth chart, envisioning line combinations and such, they had almost no expectation that Trevor Smith would contribute to the level he has in recent weeks.
"We'd all have said 'What are you crazy?'" said Carlyle, following a 3-2 overtime win against Dallas, one that snapped a season-long five game losing streak.
Smith chipped in with his seventh point in the past nine games, redirecting the overtime winner beyond Kari Lehtonen while securing the Leafs some optimism and a much-needed two points on a night when Jonathan Bernier's brilliance was required once more.
A lifelong Maple Leafs fan - he was born in Ottawa before spending time in Vancouver and later Thornhill, Ontario - Smith was inked to a one-year deal worth the veteran's minimum on the first day of free agency last summer. His contribution as a depth centre, in light of injuries to Dave Bolland and Tyler Bozak, has proven significant.
"...you have to take your hat off to the player," Carlyle said of Smith, who was named the Toronto Marlies captain prior to the start of the AHL regular season. "He's earned every opportunity, he's earned everything he's got and when people do that they should be recognized for their contribution."
Plugged onto the fourth line during his first stint with the Leafs earlier in the fall, Smith was recalled from the Marlies once more in mid-November at the very height of the team's troubles down the middle. The James van Riemsdyk experiment was over, Peter Holland had been acquired from Anaheim and Smith, playing with the Marlies in Cleveland on a Thursday night, had been dropped off in Buffalo to play against the Sabres and help provide a spark offensively.
But rather than employing the 28-year-old, who had 20 goals in each of his past two AHL seasons, in a depth role, Carlyle had little choice but to use him with skilled players in an offensive role.
An undrafted free agent - he had played in 24 NHL games prior to this season - Smith made quick work of the opportunity, scoring twice and adding three assists in three games before ending the Leafs losing skid on Thursday night. Considering the ongoing struggles of the club to generate offence beyond a core group of forwards, his contribution was of unexpected and much-needed value.
Questioned on whether he expected to contribute in such a manner, Smith replied with a large grin and confident response.
"I knew I could," he said of scoring four goals in 18 games. "I'm not sure anybody else did."
1. An Expectation of Brilliance
Bernier turned aside 48 of 50 Dallas shots on a night in which the Stars directed 95 shots to the net compared to just 45 for the Leafs.
"I'm not that impressed anymore because he's done this night in and night out," said Nazem Kadri of Bernier. "It's almost expected of him now. He's been a great contributor to this team. Even throughout those tough stretches when they had us pinned in our end our goalie needs to make a couple big saves for us to get the win and that's exactly what happened."
Leaf goaltenders have been the busiest in the NHL this season - facing more than 36 shots per game - withstanding a nightly assault with vigor until recent weeks when the load appeared too much to bear. Bernier had dropped five of his past six starts, including a loss to Montreal on Saturday. "I guess that's our style right now," said Bernier, who has faced 137 shots in his past three starts. "We find ways to win hockey games with 20 shots on net. A point is a point and that's our mindset."
Bernier stopped all 25 shots in the first two frames before yielding a pair during the Stars 17-shot onslaught in the third.
"You need certain individuals on your team to step up," said Carlyle. "Bernier and James Reimer have stepped up all season for us. There's been a couple games where people have criticized them for goals, [but] that wasn't the coaching staff because the work that they've put in, the body of work that they've given us, it's pretty hard to point any finger in their direction that's for sure."
"Our goaltenders have been spectacular throughout the whole year and we know that when push comes to shove they're going to make a big save for us," said Kadri. "It's our turn to start giving back a little bit."
Bernier and Reimer own an equal .931 save percentage this season.
2. Tough Times for Kadri
Playing with a heavy heart, Nazem Kadri scored twice in his return to the lineup on Thursday night. Kadri, who missed Tuesday's game against San Jose, is mourning the loss of his grandfather. The 23-year-old said his grandfather played a prominent role in his upbringing and described his recent health troubles as a source of ongoing worriment.
"It was always just in the back of my head, something that I always had to deal with it after the games, just always constantly checking up on him," said Kadri prior the victory against Dallas. "It was something that was hard for me to go through. It was the first time I'd gone through something like this before. I know it's going to make me stronger in the end, I've just got to get through it and use these games and this game of hockey as my release."
Stepping into the top line void left by the injured Bozak, Kadri buried a feed from van Riemsdyk in the opening moments of the second period before adding his second of the game and ninth this season on a power-play redirection in the third.
"I wanted to have a big game for him," said Kadri. "I know he's watching me tonight."
"Nazzie's had a tough couple days and we understand that with the loss of his grandfather," Carlyle said. "Emotionally I think that he's pretty drained and I don't think he really looked himself around the rink the past couple days.
"Hopefully we can be some solace to him in his time of mourning. Usually when you go to work and you get back into the swing of things in life it helps you move on…There's going to be more tough days for Nazzie."
3. Skid Snapped
It was by no means a pretty victory, but it was two points the Leafs needed amid an increasingly concerning skid which included just two regulation victories in 14 games. The Stars were the better team for most of the night, more than doubling the shot total of the home side. They spent shift upon shift in the Toronto zone, turned aside countless times by Bernier. A third period surge was capped by Shawn Horcoff's game-tying goal with less than three minutes to go in regulation.
"By no means, [do] we think we're out of the woods, but it feels good to win a hockey game," said Carlyle. "I'm happy we won because there seems to be a lot of pressure on our group. Hopefully this helps flush some of the things that are going on out there that we can feel a little bit of room to breathe."
"We had to break it," said Smith of the losing streak. "We haven't been playing well. I don't think we put together 60 minutes at all tonight, but with Bernier playing on his head for us he gave us a chance to win and that's all we can ask."
4. Injury and Opportunity
Just as Cody Franson returned from a two-game absence Thursday did the Leafs lose two more bodies to injury. Tyler Bozak, having already missed 12 games this season due to a hamstring issue, was placed on injured reserve with an oblique strain. He will be out an "extended" period, according to Carlyle. Colton Orr additionally was placed on IR with an elbow injury.
"It's very frustrating and disappointing that we're going through the rash of injuries that we are now, but it's really not time to talk about the injured players, it's the time to talk about the players that we have in our lineup," said Carlyle, shortly after announcing news of the injuries. "There's opportunities made available. Our expectations for the group that we have available to us is where our focus should be, not on the people that are not in the lineup."
No player has made more of his opportunity in the face of injuries than Smith.
"Did we ever think that Trevor Smith was going to be the guy that he has been for our hockey club this year? That's a positive," said Carlyle. "Now we have an opportunity for Peter Holland to step in our lineup and play possibly a more offensive role. Nazem Kadri now has an opportunity to play with Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. The way we have to shift it is the focus has to go on the players that are playing, not the players that aren't playing."
The Leafs are up to 80 man games missed to injury, nearing the 91 they totaled in 48 games last season. But as Carlyle made sure to note after the game, every team in the league is dealing with injuries, some more so than the Leafs.
"There's 15 teams that have lost more man games than we have so quit feeling sorry ourselves," he said. "Let's move on. Let's focus on the players that we have [and] the job that we have to do. Hopefully this [win] helps us do that."
5. Lupul's Return Drawing Near
Sidelined the past five games with a groin injury, Joffrey Lupul appears to nearing a return, possibly even for Saturday's game in Ottawa. "It's too hard to say right now," said Lupul of a return against the Senators. "I don't want to rule anything out quite yet, but certainly there's some improvements that need to be made first."
Lupul has yet to participate in a full practice with the Leafs, but believes he'd require just one such practice before rejoining the lineup. The 30-year-old has missed seven games this season, two of those due to a foot injury last month. "I feel like I'm getting closer, but at this point I can't risk re-aggravating [the injury] or anything," he said. "I don't think that's in the best interest of me or the team.
"I'd like to think we're moving in the right direction."
137 - Shots faced by Jonathan Bernier in his past three starts.
36.6 - Average shots against for the Leafs this season, most in the NHL.
25:30 - Ice-time for Jake Gardiner, leading the Leafs against Dallas.
26 - Times the Leafs have been outshot in 29 games this season.
2-3-2 - Record for Bernier in his past seven starts.
7- Points for Trevor Smith in the past nine games.
4:02 - Ice-time for Jerry D'Amigo, who made his NHL debut on Thursday night.
6 - Consecutive games the Leafs have allowed at least one power-play goal.
5 - Consecutive games with a point for Phil Kessel. Kessel had two assists against the Stars, totaling six points during the recent streak.
Special Teams Capsule
Quote of the Night
"I know he's watching me tonight."
-Nazem Kadri, speaking about his grandfather, who passed away earlier this week.
The Leafs visit the Senators on Saturday.