TORONTO – Shootouts have proven a nemesis for Jonathan Bernier.
But with a few adjustments on Friday evening, the 25-year-old managed to secure his team an extra point, stopping all three Buffalo shooters in a 4-3 triumph at the ACC.
"I just changed a few things and felt more comfortable in net," Bernier said after the win, the Leafs' fourth straight to end in a shootout.
History hasn't been kind to the emerging, young netminder in the skills portion of extra time. Bernier entered the night with eight losses in 11 career shootouts – two of his three victories coming this season – his .500 save percentage amongst the worst of any active goaltender.
In the final two games before the three-day Christmas break – both shootout losses – he failed to stop any of the four shots he faced from the Red Wings and Rangers. He was particularly sour with the result after a 2-1 defeat at Madison Square Garden on Monday night, one that saw him backstop the Leafs with an impressive 42 saves.
He found a flaw though, with the help of video, and put it to work against the Sabres.
"I think I was backing too quick the last two I did and that's the adjustment I made," said Bernier, who stopped 32 of 35 shots in regulation and overtime. "They were seeing too much net. I feel I'm agile enough to get there and that's where I wanted to get the angle right and take away the net behind me."
Luck was also on his side. Tyler Ennis hit a bar on the Sabres second attempt while Zemgus Girgensons failed to tuck the puck across the goal-line after beating Bernier with a clever move.
Still, it was victory all the same and one the Leafs needed after two defeats to the cellar-dwelling Sabres earlier this season. Bernier improved to 3-4 in shootouts this season and now boasts a .543 career mark.
Coming off a three-day break for the Christmas holidays, Randy Carlyle wondered aloud on Friday morning what type of team might show up against the Sabres.
"These games are different games I'm going to tell you," he said, citing the now CBA-mandated three days off the ice with only a morning skate to speak of. "You never know what you're going to get."
Unpredictable and inconsistent as they have been all year, the Leafs were under siege for most of the opening period. Buffalo scored twice in a span of 53 seconds and outshot Toronto 15-4 over the final 16 minutes of the first frame.
"We self-inflicted a lot of things that happened to us in the first period," said Carlyle, highlighting an offensive zone turnover from Joffrey Lupul on Buffalo's second goal.
"We seemed to be trying to be too cute and played fancy and obviously that wasn't really what we needed to do. We needed to put the puck in and find ways to get through the neutral ice and establish more of a grind game and offensive zone time and we were able to do that in the second period. We were like two different hockey clubs."
The Sabres' 2-0 lead was quickly vanquished.
Jake Gardiner, Peter Holland and Phil Kessel all scored in a dominant second frame, one that saw the Leafs outshoot their Atlantic division rival 17-5 while playing with the punishing down-low game they have been searching for all season.
"We said there's nothing we can do about the first – it was done," Dion Phaneuf said afterward. "We felt that we could play better and we went out and we did that. It was a really big second period for our team."
The lead nearly survived regulation. But with Phaneuf whistled for hooking in the final minute of regulation, Steve Ott managed to knot the score at three, eventually pushing the Leafs to their fourth straight shootout.
"The positive is that we found a way to regroup and get ourselves back on track," said Carlyle. "But we have to play 60 minutes like we played the last two periods – as close to that as we possibly can."
2. Disdain for Shootouts
Carlyle made no secret of his disdain for shootouts prior to the game.
"My personal opinion on shootouts is they can take them and they can take it someplace else," he said with a hearty laugh. "I'd rather see us go to overtime, go to three-on-three, two-on-two to find a winner. I look at it differently than obviously the people that have it in place."
The Leafs, now 6-4 in shootouts, have won six games since Nov. 19, four of them coming in the shootout.
3. Offence from the Defence
A source of some concern in the opening two months of the season, the Leaf offence is finally getting a boost from the back-end. Gardiner's second goal this season gave the Leafs six goals from the defence corps in the past 11 games compared with a scant three in the first 29 games.
Phaneuf leads the group with three goals this season, Franson pacing the way with 20 points, including a pair of assists on Friday.
4. Necessary Adjustments
Paul Ranger played in each of the Leafs first 22 games this season, but over the course of the past month he has bounced in and out of the Toronto lineup. Carlyle said he the rust element for Ranger, following a four-year NHL absence, but "we're in the business to win hockey games".
Among the adjustments being asked of the 6-foot-3, 210 pound defender is a more consistent physical dimension. "I think Paul Ranger is a big, hulking man that has got much power as any player that I've saw – he's that strong," said Carlyle of the 29-year-old. "He does things that normal people can't do as far as power. And I'd like to see him use that power element on the defensive side of it..."
What the Leafs would like specifically is for Ranger to assert himself with a physical edge in the defensive zone, eliminate the opposition with the size and strength he's accumulated since he last played in the league in 2008.
"He has that kind of power and strength," Carlyle said. "We think that's the quickest for him to get back to the confidence level that he played at before. We need him to do that for our hockey team."
Ranger was not that type of defenceman when he played in Tampa for five seasons.
"He was an offensive guy," Carlyle said of Ranger, who posted a career-high of 10 goals and 31 points in 2007-08. "He was asked to join the rush all the time. And we don't think that that suits his model right now for him to get back to where he was."
"I think playing consistently," said Ranger of needed improvements during a conversation with the Leaf Report. "Just reliable and consistent. And then be able to play my game a little bit more. I guess relax a little bit out there and just play my game like I know I can."
5. Christmas Break Reset
The Leafs were hopeful that the recent three-day break would offer an opportunity to recharge the batteries with a furious January ahead.
"You kind of hit the reset button and get away for a little bit," said Franson. "I think that's big for a lot of us right now, just having gone through what we went through the last little while here and trying to find our identity a bit. The break's big for that, to be able to step away from the game for a couple days and be with some family and think about other things than hockey."
4-8 – Career record for Jonathan Bernier in the shootout.
1 – Regulation victory for the Leafs in the past 19 games.
8 – Points for Peter Holland in the past 10 games, including his sixth goal this season against the Sabres.
6 – Goals from the Toronto defence in the past 11 games.
3 – Goals from the Toronto defence in the first 29 games.
2 – Points from Phil Kessel on Friday, his first multi-point outing since Dec. 7, a nine-game stretch.
5-6-2 – Leafs record in December.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 22.7 per cent (4th)
Season: 77.9 per cent (27th)
Quote of the Night
"Do we like shootouts? No."
-Randy Carlyle, following his team's fourth straight shootout decision.
The Leafs host the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday night, their final game before Wednesday's Winter Classic.