BOSTON – Joffrey Lupul had a sense of what his coach may have been up to in the pre-game warm-up, tactics that would inspire a rebound performance from the Leafs in Game 2 on Saturday evening.
“I think I did, but sometimes I never know,” said Lupul with a laugh. “You don't know until he taps you on the back.”
Randy Carlyle got creative on Saturday evening. After his team generated just 20 shots and only hints of offence in a wobbly series opening loss, Carlyle did his best to make life a tad more challenging for Bruins coach Claude Julien, efforts that paid dividends as his team evened up its best-of-seven series with a 4-2 victory, the series shifting back to Toronto for game number three on Monday night.
Carlyle's creativity and deception became apparent as soon as the puck dropped at 7:14.
The much-maligned Phil Kessel began the game alongside Lupul and Tyler Bozak, but darted off the ice after just six seconds, replaced by Matt Frattin. Kessel then tagged onto a unit with Nazem Kadri and Ryan Hamilton, James van Riemsdyk joining Mikhail Grabovski and Nik Kulemin, Leo Komarov finding his way onto a fourth line with Colton Orr and Jay McClement.
In menacing fashion the Leafs coach had, in one swoop, dumped the four line combinations displayed only minutes earlier in the pre-game warmup and thus fashioned an entirely different template, one that would throw a wrench into Julien's matchup plans. The creative strategy worked mostly to keep Kessel away from Zdeno Chara and alternately spread the Leafs attack onto three units – with Kessel, Lupul, and van Riemsdyk all on different lines. The tactics proved successful on all fronts.
Most prominent was the approach against Chara, who has owned Kessel since the latter departed for Toronto in the fall of 2009.
“We obviously tried to do a few things to keep them separate,” Carlyle conceded after the game. “This is really the first time that we've really went as hard at that...”
What Carlyle did, especially early, was force his counterpart, Julien, to work harder for the Chara-Kessel matchup, setting a trap in some instances to lure the Bruins captain onto the ice. One sampling of these attempts saw Kessel start an offensive zone faceoff alongside the pair, thus luring Chara onto the ice. When the play promptly left the Bruins zone, Kessel jumped off as Chara remained. The Leafs sniper reappeared moments later alongside Kadri and Hamilton for a rare shift with the Bruins captain still on the bench.
The tactics finally reaped success when Kessel opened the third frame with his first ever even-strength goal against the team that drafted him, the eventual game-winner in a series-tying victory.
“I was switching quite a bit trying to get away from Z,” Kessel said of the 6-foot-9 onetime Norris Trophy winner. “He's one of the best right.”
It was only three seconds after Chara had left the ice – he began the period opposite Lupul, Bozak and Frattin – that Kessel hopped on alongside Hamilton and Kadri, the 25-year-old blowing past the remaining Bruins defence (Dennis Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk) before beating Tuukka Rask on a breakaway, his 10th career playoff goal and first as a Leaf.
“You could see the smile on his face and the energy that our bench got from it so it was obviously a big positive in that respect,” Carlyle reflected of the goal.
And not only did Kessel score with Chara planted on the bench, as Carlyle may have dreamed, but the Leafs found bursts of offence from each of their three top units, Lupul scoring twice and van Riemsdyk managing his second in the playoffs as a Leaf.
1. Tinkering to success
Additionally successful for Carlyle were the personnel changes he made for the second game of the series with Boston. In went some speed and skill in Frattin, Hamilton, Jake Gardiner and Ryan O'Byrne, out went some toughness in Frazer McLaren, the struggling Clarke MacArthur, as well as John-Michael Liles and Michael Kostka (injured) on the back-end. The alterations worked about as well as Carlyle could expect.
Logging nearly 18 minutes in his first action since April 18, Gardiner's point shot on a power-play sprung a rebound for Lupul, the 29-year-old beating Rask for the game-tying goal early in the second frame. Bursting wide with power on Seidenberg later that period meanwhile, Frattin thrust a cross-ice pass to Lupul for the Leafs second goal, adding a pair of shots and five hits in exactly 11 minutes. The former Marlies captain, Hamilton injected a physical presence, some increased compete and an assist in a workload that seemed greater than the nine minutes or so it entailed.
“It was definitely exciting,” said Hamilton, following his first NHL playoff game. “It feels good to be part of the battle and try to help the team out any way you can.”
O'Byrne lastly, played nearly 15 minutes, chipping in with four hits.
2. Busy night for Reimer
James Reimer became the first goalie since his idol Ed Belfour to win a playoff game for the Leafs, stopping 39 of the 41 pucks the Bruins thrust his way.
“You've got to stay on your toes,” said Reimer, who stopped 12 of 13 in the final period. “That's what your job is as a goaltender to make those saves and keep your team in it. Boston, they threw a lot of pucks at the net again and brought traffic and they made it difficult, but we were lucky enough that most of the pucks hit me tonight.”
While his rebounds weren't always tidy, Reimer managed to make a number of key stops, including one early in the first to bail out Gardiner, who banked a puck off the boards to Gregory Campbell, who then burst in alone on the Leafs netminder.
“I thought Reimer did a heck of a job, gave us a chance,” Carlyle said. “We've always stated that we're not expecting our goaltender to win hockey games. Yeah, we'd like our goalie to pitch you a shutout and win you a hockey game and he's done that for us, but I think realistically if he can give your hockey club a chance he lets you forget about some of the mistakes that do happen out there.”
3. Finding composure
Nazem Kadri wouldn't dispute the fact.
“I think nerves played a big part in it,” he said of his team's one-sided defeat in Game 1.
One among 10 Leafs playing in their first playoff game Wednesday night Kadri said the philosophy for overcoming those nerves with composure in Game 2 was elementary.
“We like to use the term ‘hitting singles',” he explained, “keeping it simple, just back to basics, back to the fundamentals of hockey, do what really got us here because I think we're a pretty basic, hard-working hockey team…”
Asked prior to the victory if he anticipated improved composure from his team on Saturday, Carlyle responded in the affirmative.
“It has to be,” he said. “I don't anticipate it, it has to be. It has to be to a higher level. We have to be more in tune with the way that the game needs to be played … I'm pretty sure that we'll be better than we were the other night because I don't think we had too much further down to go in the realm of our play.”
What most impressed Carlyle in the second game against Boston was his team's management of the puck and subsequent ability to slow the Bruins down through the neutral zone and on the forecheck.
“The tempo of the game was a lot different from our standpoint where we moved the puck more effectively,” he said. “We didn't turn it over. To me that was the biggest difference between tonight and Wednesday.”
4. Generating offence
Simplicity was the term of the day for the Leafs as it pertained to generating more of a push offensively against the Bruins.
“That's exactly what it is,” said Kadri following the morning skate. “And especially on the road I think when you try and make those cute plays it ends up often turning momentum and next thing you know you're hemmed in your own zone for four or five minutes.”
In addition to turnovers, Kadri spoke to another frequent talking point of Carlyle, the need to skate and increase the pace versus the Bruins defence, which was without the suspended Andrew Ference.
“That's our strength is skating and speed,” he explained, “especially when we're using that simplicity and mixing everything together it can be a pretty lethal experiment. We've just got to keep chipping pucks off the wall and use our speed, especially our forwards; we've got to get into the offensive zone and really make these big [defenders] work. They're good, but we've got to find ways to spin off them and start generating scoring chances and taking pucks to the net.”
The Leafs mustered a quaint 20 shots in the series opener on Wednesday and had scored just eight goals in five games against Boston this season. But with speed and an aggressive, physical forecheck Saturday, especially in the opening two periods, they snuck four pucks past Rask, totaling 32 shots on the evening, including 26 after 40 minutes.
5. Praise for Hamilton
Carlyle had glowing praise for Hamilton, who stepped into the lineup on Saturday.
“The one thing about Ryan Hamilton is that he's going to do everything that he has in his power to make an impression and to do his job,” the Leafs coach said. “And if it takes [taking] on a bigger man as far as a battle along the wall, if it takes blocking a shot, if it takes a check to make a play, he's that type of player.
“He's a great example [as] a professional for our young players to see the work ethic and the commitment he makes to the game day in, day out. And that's another feather in his cap because we're looking at the person and individual first and the pro hockey player second.”
Bonus Point I – Grabovski's emergence
One of the few Leafs to make a positive impression in game 1, Mikhail Grabovski had another strong performance on Saturday, setting up van Riemsdyk's goal while providing the shiftiness and feistiness that had been lacking in the regular season.
“It's a great opportunity for me to play in playoffs,” he said afterward. While he struggled on the draw, Grabovski logged nearly 17 minutes, his highest total since March 21.
Bonus Point II – MacArthur's (ongoing) lament
Three nights after he made his first postseason appearance, Clarke MacArthur became a healthy scratch, his offensive woes enduring. An impending unrestricted free agent, MacArthur has just one goal in the past 17 games and has generated only spurts offensively since February and March when he compiled 15 points in 25 games.
“I think he gets frustrated with himself,” Carlyle said of MacArthur on Friday afternoon. “I think he's a guy that takes a lot of that on and isn't able to shake it. He can't carry it around, he's got to let it go from shift to shift. Those things are confidence issues he's got to overcome.”
Bonus Point III – Kostka out
Michael Kostka knew instantly in game 1 that the shot from Kaspar Daugavins had done some real damage. But with Cody Franson hobbling from a bruised left foot, Kostka felt he had no choice to continue on, taping up what proved to be his broken right index finger.
“The rest of the game I couldn't shoot or really do too much,” said Kostka, who also indicated a pain factor even when receiving passes. “Franson went down too with the shot to the foot so I couldn't really put us down to four defencemen at that point so I just knew I had to battle through it.”
Kostka had a difficult evening, on the ice for all four Bruins goals, but with hindsight his performance looks to have been severely tarnished by the broken finger. The 27-year-old was unsure of the timeline for the injury, but figures to be out for the immediate future.
Quote of the Night
“I was switching quite a bit trying to get away from Z. He's one of the best right.”
-Phil Kessel on efforts to elude Zdeno Chara on Saturday.
Quote of the Night II
“It has to be. I don't anticipate it, it has to be. It has to be to a higher level.”
-Randy Carlyle on anticipating a higher level of composure from his team in Game 2.
8: Shots for Joffrey Lupul, who scored twice and now has 16 career playoff goals.
44-35: Advantage in the hits department for the Leafs on Saturday.
4: Shots for Phil Kessel. Kessel had just one in the series opener and only seven in four regular season games against the Bruins.
27-76: Leafs on the draw against Boston, the top faceoff team in the NHL in the regular season.
14-38: Tyler Bozak on the draw, including just 1-7 versus Rich Peverly.
2-7: Toronto power-play after two games.
16:56: Mikhail Grabovski.
The series returns to Toronto for game three on Monday night, the first NHL playoff game at the Air Canada Centre since May 4, 2004.