Despite a stronger start for the Maple Leafs against the Vancouver Canucks – building a 7-1 lead at one point on the shot clock – things didn't look too good until the final 20 minutes. Struggling to generate much offence in the second half of the first period and into the middle frame, the Leafs found their legs in the third period, scoring three unanswered goals to split their season series with the Canucks at a win apiece with a 3-1 victory.
“We were pleading, begging, crying, all those things to change the way we were playing and it just seemed that we didn't have our sharpness in terms of making tape-to-tape passes,” said Carlyle. “Then we tried to make plays as individuals in the second period and they just sat back with their 1-4 (formation) and trapped.”
But with a chance to head into the Olympic break on a high and post an impressive 11-2-1 record in their last fourteen games, Carlyle asked his team during the second intermission to find twenty inspired minutes.
“The idea is that it was a one-goal hockey game, here we have an opportunity to pull a game out of the fire by scoring one goal to give ourselves a chance,” explained Carlyle. “We had a break coming. Wouldn't it be nice for everybody to feel a lot better about ourselves with a win here versus a loss?”
Tied with Montreal at 70 points in the Atlantic, the Leafs run has positioned them well for the final 22 games of the regular season, sitting seven points up on the Columbus Blue Jackets for the final Wild Card spot.
“We talked about wanting to go into the break I think probably six games ago,” said Dion Phaneuf. “Our focus really focused in on playing well going into the break. We feel we've done that, we got some big wins and we wanted to get as many points as we possibly could going into the break and we did that.”
1) Burrows Pokes The Bear
Alex Burrows drew the ire of Phil Kessel late in the second period, cross checking him near the chin before giving him a glove on punch. Kessel responded with a few shots of his own and was noticeably agitated as he left the ice. But the Leaf sniper responded in the third period with what held up as the game-winning goal along with an assist on James Van Riemsdyk's insurance marker.
“I don't know, it's just a hockey game,” said Kessel, after the game. “I wasn't too happy, but it's part of the game."
It wasn't the first time, though, this season that Burrows had gone after Kessel. In the previous meeting on Nov. 2, the two players fought in what was only Kessel's second career NHL fight. On Saturday, both players received just two minutes for roughing with an extra two minutes going to Burrows for high sticking.
“I think Burrows has kind of a mandate to disrupt Phil so it's always nice when you come out on the right end of a big game like that and Phil scored a big goal for us,” added Carlyle.
2) Kulemin's New-Found Talent
Nikolai Kulelmin surprised many by how well he performed playing centre between Mason Raymond and Troy Bodie on Thursday in Tampa. But he showed it was no fluke with another solid outing on that same line against Vancouver.
Assisting on Mason Raymond's goal that tied the game 1-1 early in the third period, Kulemin also improved in the faceoff circle going 7-for-16.
“There has been kind of an unveiling of Kulemin at centre,” said Carlyle. “It's been a big surprise for everybody.”
With Kulemin heading towards unrestricted free agency this summer, it will be interesting to see if his new-found versatility will affect how the Leafs approach the decision they will have to make.
Additionally, Carlyle also indicated that David Bolland should be available once the Leafs resume their schedule on February 27th against the Islanders, giving the Leafs a wealth of strength down the middle with Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Nik Kulemin, Dave Bolland and Jay McClement.
3) Bodie Plays Into Carlyle's Good Books
Bodie continued to be featured regularly by Randy Carlyle against the Vancouver Canucks, playing 14:13 on a line with Raymond and Kulemin. On Thursday in Tampa, Carlyle suggested that Bodie's play has been so strong of late that he felt he owed the Portage Le Prarie native more ice time.
“It's a nice vote of confidence,” said Bodie before Saturday's game, regarding Carlyle's comment. “Being up and down from the minors, it's not the easiest thing to do but to get in the line-up and get some opportunity and to play well with it, it's nice. To hear it from him (Carlyle) is good too.”
Bodie rewarded his coach, assisting on Mason Raymond's tying goal, and tied for the team lead with six hits.
“I think just being strong on pucks, getting into fore-checks and being hard on fore-checks,” said Bodie, on what has allowed him to play into Carlyle's good books. “That's really my game, getting in there and just getting pucks back for the skill guys on the line.”
4) JVR and Kessel Excited For Their Olympic Experience
Van Riemsdyk and Kessel played a big part in the Leafs come-from-behind 3-1 win but next week, they will be hoping to display that same prowess for Team USA at the Olympics. The two players along with Kulemin will head to Newark on Sunday and then on to Sochi.
“I'm excited,” said Kessel. “Obviously whenever you get the chance to play for your country it's a big honour and I'm looking forward to it.”
“It's a huge thrill on this stage,” added van Riemsdyk. “One of the highest levels of sport you can play at is the Olympics and to be with a guy I play with day in, day out, it should be fun.”
It would stand to reason that JVR and Kessel would play on the same line with Team USA but both indicated they have not been told as of yet who they will be playing with.
One thing is for sure though. If they do play together, they'll have to find a new centre to mesh with.
“I'm excited to watch them play; I think they're going to do great,” said Tyler Bozak, who said he'll be watching his teammates from the Bahamas over the Olympic break. “It's nice that they're coming into the Olympics really hot. I'm Canadian so if Canada and the U.S. play each other, it's going to be tough. I don't know who I'm going to cheer for yet.”
5) Olympic Break Concerns
The Olympic break couldn't come at a better time for the Vancouver Canucks, having lost seven straight. But for the Maple Leafs, the concern for Randy Carlyle is that the break will interrupt the hot streak the Leafs have found themselves on.
“It gives us an opportunity to get our team back together and not to drop what we've done now, it's to maintain some level of consistency and push for the last 22 games to get ourselves in the best possible position to qualify for the playoffs,” said Carlyle.
With four sets of back-to-back games remaining and a five-game road trip that will take them to Anaheim, San Jose, Los Angeles, Washington and Detroit, the schedule will be a grind.
“We know that the games are going to get tougher, we're going to go out west, play some Western Conference teams, it's not going to be an easy schedule that we've got coming,” Carlyle cautioned. “There are no easy ones in the NHL and they're just going to get tougher when we come back, that's for sure.”
He also opted to leave his players with a message he hopes they heed over the break.
“The message was ‘the break is here for you to rest and relax but you'd be well advised to make sure that you have some form of exercise taking place a few times during the break because when we come back, we're going to go to work',” said Carlyle.
Jay McClement left in the second period after tangling with Dan Hamhuis, falling awkwardly into the corner boards. He did not return to the game, playing just 5:22. Randy Carlyle confirmed after the game that McClement had a gash over his eye and went to the quiet room.
11-2-1: Leafs record in final 14 games
100: Career assists for Tyler Bozak; earned it on Phil Kessel's goal
14:13: Troy Bodie's ice time; second highest among this season
60%: Tyler Bozak's night in the faceoff circle going 12/20
57%: Nazem Kadri's night in the faceoff circle going 12/21
7: Losses in a row for the Vancouver Canucks
19: Games since Daniel Sedin last scored a goal
28: Games Alexander Burrows has gone without a goal
Quote of the night:
“I don't think anyone's happy when stuff like that happens, he kind of went after (Phil). I mean it's a scrum, there's going to be tons in hockey but I think Phil kind of likes that stuff secretly. It kind of fired him up. They say don't poke the bear and I think they kind of did there. Phil showed it in the third period.” – Tyler Bozak on Phil Kessel's skirmish with Alexander Burrows.
The New York Islanders to kick off the final 22 games of the regular season in New York on February 27th.