TORONTO – The shootout has proven a viable saving grace for this year's edition of the Maple Leafs.
When Reid Boucher shot wide in what would be the Devils final attempt on Jonathan Bernier in the third round of the skills competition Sunday, he handed Toronto its eighth victorious decision in the shootout this season – tied for the most in the NHL.
In fact, the Leafs have more victories in the shootout since the start of November (six) than they do in regulation/overtime (five), a fact that's masked, until recently, just how poorly the team has performed in the past two-plus months (12-16-5).
But for a team that was teetering on a four-game losing streak – the second longest this season – the winning decision at the ACC, in a reality divorced from the game itself, was nonetheless needed and important.
"Well, we can breathe," said Randy Carlyle, following the 3-2 victory, the second in two tries against the Devils this season, both wins coming in the shootout. "There's been a lot of gasping going on, and even in this game there was a lot of gasping going on how tight it was."
It was not a pretty performance in many regards – the Leafs were outshot 38-25 and out-attempted 83-48 – but one that at least offered some of the requisite intensity and desire that had been missing amid the recent slide and quite often throughout what's been a disappointing campaign to date.
And they might very well have won it in regulation had it not been for a blown call on Tyler Bozak's apparent go-ahead goal in the second frame.
"Guys are a little looser tonight already," Mason Raymond told the Leaf Report shortly after the win. "It feels good. It feels good to get a win."
"Hopefully this relieves a little bit of the stress that's involved for our hockey club, and they can get back playing to the way we're capable of playing," added Carlyle.
Consistency has been a foe of his team so far.
The Leafs have reeled off exactly one winning streak since October – it lasted three games, two of which were won in shootouts – winning back-to-back games on just two other occasions.
Stringing together heartier efforts against the Capitals and Devils in recent days then is just a mild step in the right direction. The team's response in an upcoming back-to-back with the Bruins and Sabres will indicate whether, in fact, a corner is gradually being turned.
"I don't think it's an exact recipe you can follow," Raymond said of achieving consistency. "You've got to build off the things, in my opinion, that you did well, stay positive and believe. I think that's a big part of it is just believing that we can get the job done and go out there and get wins."
"I think the last few games our compete level and effort has been way better," said van Riemsdyk, who scored for the second straight game, "and I think if we continue to play in that same mold we'll have some more results that we want."
1. Gardiner's Development Pt. 1
Carlyle labeled 23-year-old Jake Gardiner's performance in Washington Friday night as "the model in which we'd like him to play'. Gardiner, who had been scratched for just the second time all season one night earlier in Carolina, raised his performance in the eyes of the coaching staff against the Capitals.
"Much different Jake Gardiner," said Carlyle, observing improved strength and intensity in the defensive zone as well as better decision-making with the puck.
Such is the road to development for a young defender in the NHL. Many ups come with many downs. "Jake is a talented young player and there are steps that he has to continue to take," said Carlyle, who met with Gardiner briefly at the end of Sunday's morning skate.
"With Jake, he has the ability to move the puck both with his hands and with his feet – he can skate. He would like to make more consistent decisions with the puck and so would we. We've struggled to find a consistent level for him over the last probably five or six games."
That inconsistency led Carlyle to scratch Gardiner last week, a questionable move that blew up in a 6-1 loss to the Hurricanes. But if the sit-down was designed to spark a reaction then it may have achieved some success the next night in the U.S. capital.
"I think what happens with young players is they find that they're always trying to do one thing and maybe trying to do too much of one thing and that sometimes turns into where you skate the puck into areas where you shouldn't and turn over the puck," said Carlyle. "But he's a young player that has got a tremendous upside."
2. Gardiner's Development Pt. 2
What Carlyle has done additionally, in the mean-time, is remove Gardiner from the team's top two pairings – he and 19-year-old Morgan Rielly formed the third grouping for the second straight game against the Devils – and thus lighten the burden he is exposed to on a night to night basis.
Speaking to the Leaf Report on Sunday morning, Gardiner described his decision-making with the puck as one needed improvement, an issue again at times on Sunday night.
"Don't try and force anything," he said. "I think I was trying to make plays that weren't there and I was maybe trying to move the puck a little bit too quickly. When there's not an open guy, maybe just be patient and hold onto the puck a little bit."
Gardiner, who played over 24 minutes against the Devils, is averaging nearly 22 minutes per game this season, second on the team.
3. Bolland Front
Dave Bolland hasn't played since Nov. 2, when his left ankle was sliced by the skate blade of Canucks forward Zack Kassian. The 27-year-old has missed 32 games with the injury, but is due to finally start skating with the team on Thursday.
Bolland recently traveled to Montreal in hopes of having a new boot designed specifically to support the injured area. That boot was due to arrive in Toronto on Monday with the Mimico native then expected to skate before joining the Leafs on a four-game road trip next week.
An exact timeframe for return remains unclear.
4. Harder to Play Against?
Asked before the game if this version of the Maple Leafs was as difficult to play against as the one that ended a lengthy playoff drought last season, Carlyle responded flatly in the negative.
"Nowhere near," he said. "We've been scratching our heads and trying to figure out why."
And if there was one element that remained constant from a Friday loss in Washington to Sunday's win in Toronto, it was the intensity of his group. The execution may have been lacking at times, but the compete Carlyle has been prodding for remained.
"That's one thing that we've really tried to put at the forefront in the last three weeks to a month is that our compete level has to go to a level where we're satisfied," said Carlyle on Sunday morning. "That's the one thing that we've said is our compete level has to go up."
Carlyle pointed to the simple will required to win puck battles.
"We have been guilty of just standing around in those situations," he said. "I call it getting inside. I think to be inside in today's NHL is the key because you can't hook and hold, you have to skate your way to get inside.
"When we do it we can play effective hockey and give ourselves a chance to win. And when we don't do it we're receiving the game, we're standing around. I would say that's the biggest mystery for the coaching staff."
5. Stunted Starts
Toronto has exited the first frame with a lead in 12 of 47 games this season, trailing, by comparison, on 17 occasions. Substandard starts have been a source of considerable trouble, often requiring the club to dig out from an early hole without much ultimate success.
"All year long, we've [had] pretty poor starts," said Gardiner. "We try to dig ourselves out of it and then we start playing well and it's too late by that time so if we can play almost desperate and aggressive I think we'll have better starts and it'll lead to a better outcome."
The Leafs started slowly again on Sunday – outshot 7-1 in the opening 10 minutes – but rebounded during the back half of the period, finding the game's first goal from Tyler Bozak, his seventh this season.
"We were rusty, I thought, for the first 10 or 12 minutes of the game," said Carlyle.
8-4 – Leafs record in the shootout this season.
13 – Points in the past 11 games for Tyler Bozak, who has 19 points in 23 games this season.
8 – Shootout wins for the Leafs this season, tied with the Capitals for the most in the NHL.
1 – Goals in the past 14 games for Nazem Kadri.
24:23 – Ice-time for Jake Gardiner against the Devils, second on the team to Dion Phaneuf.
62% - Leafs success rate on the draw against the Devils.
2 – Consecutive games with a goal for James van Riemsdyk, who had two in the preceding 15 games.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 21.8% (5th)
Season: 77.4% (27th)
Quote of the Night
"I asked him if he could watch it after the game and maybe next time he has a game [with us] he can apologize or something because that was pretty brutal."
- James van Riemsdyk, on his conversation with an official following Tyler Bozak's waved off goal in the second period.
The Leafs visit the Bruins in Boston on Tuesday night.