Whether the Toronto Maple Leafs win another game in this series or go deep into the playoffs, Saturday’s 4-2 victory over the Boston Bruins has to go down as one of the best team accomplishments of the season.
If the Leafs do fail to win another game, at least we’ll have that one Saturday night in May where reputations were formed, and demons exorcised against a team that’s owned them.
That Phil Kessell finally scored what proved to be the winner against the Boston Bruins at even strength on an electrifying breakaway from the stick of Nazem Kadri was alone worth the price of admission if you’re a Leaf’s fan. Kessel’s joyful smile and celebration on the bench was the manifestation of one huge monkey slipping off the back the Leafs’ sniper and bodes well going forward. It gave them a 3-1 lead early in the third and energized them the rest of the way. From a Leafs standpoint, the biggest goal of the series both symbolically and in terms of a momentum shift. As Leafs’ play-by-play man Joe Bowen bellowed as only he can, “Thank-you Kessel!” a shot back at the relentless taunting by the Bruins’ faithful at their former player.
While Kessel’s goal was the emotional high point of the game from a Leafs’ standpoint, their bounce-back performance was definitely a total team effort that saw skill and grit on this night.
Joffrey Lupul alertly and skillfully scored the first two goals from the rough areas while James Van Riemsdyk artfully corralled the puck behind him while off balance, banking it off Tuukka Rask for an insurance goal. Nice stuff.
But much of the credit for the rebound, as Toronto Sun sports columnist Steve Simmons points out, belonged to Randy Carlyle. With the help of his staff, he took a whipped bunch of mostly playoff virgins and gave them the confidence to execute a game plan that rose to the matchup challenge the Bruins pose. He’s managed to do it for much of the year with the exception of the last three weeks of the regular season where the team couldn’t seem to find that extra gear. But they found it again last night.
The insertion of four fresh bodies in the lineup by Carlyle paid dividends with three of them, Jake Gardiner, Matt Frattin and Ryan Hamilton scoring points. But as part of his strategy, Carlyle exercised patience as well. Instead of nailing Gardiner to the bench after he coughed up a blatant giveaway which James Reimer bailed him out on, Carlyle kept using him and Gardiner played a solid game the rest of the way. If he continues on that track, his speed will give the Bruins some headaches.
Matt Frattin also returned and his impact while not spectacular, was noticeable making each shift count doing all the so-called little things to thwart the Bruins and provide some offence from the third line.
But where Carlyle deserves most credit was his creative use of Phil Kessel, inserting him on different lines and taking him out of his comfort zone, playing him at times on left wing to avoid his nemesis, the Giant — Zdeno Chara. (my topic for Friday’s column).
Carlyle’s tinkering and strategies seemed to catch Bruins’ coach Claude Julien a little off guard, maybe even exasperate him a bit.
Now Julien and the Bruins find themselves with a challenge on their hands: A seasoned, strategic coach to match wits with and a rejuvenated squad that as Game 2 showed, is capable of carrying out his game plan.