It wasn't always pretty, but it was likely the Toronto Maple Leafs best performance of this young season.
Yes, they were outshot – including heavily in an ugly second period – but netminder James Reimer was terrific in response, picking up his third win as he made 37 saves and got a standing ovation at one point from the Air Canada Centre crowd as part of a 4-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
And he had some help from throughout the Leafs lineup.
With Tyler Bozak a late scratch with a lower body injury, centres Dave Bolland and Nazem Kadri were both sharp in big minutes, limiting Penguins superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to very little on the night.
Add in a strong performance from captain Dion Phaneuf on the back end, two nice plays that turned into key goals on offence from a revamped top line and a terrific outing from a third line that was formerly the fourth line and there were positives all over.
The biggest of which was that the Leafs looked little like the team that had been outplayed in four of its last five games, including an ugly loss in Columbus a night earlier.
"We had to respond off our effort we had last night," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said of his team's 5-2 loss to the Blue Jackets. "That's really what we asked of our group… We were bound and determined that we were going to make amends for last night. We accomplished what we did. Not to say we were perfect – just to say we did a lot of good things out there and we played our heart out."
The Leafs recipe for winning a lot of games this year has been to get pounded on the shot clock early and come on late, but they opened Saturday with a very even first 20 minutes that involved both teams trading goals.
Come the second, however, Toronto was unable to generate much of anything and was outshot 16-4, surviving with a tie into the final 20 minutes only because Reimer made several key stops.
The game then swung their way when Kadri gave the Leafs a lead early in the third, completing a pretty tic-tac-toe play that involved all three members of the first line. After springing into an open space in the slot, Kadri finished the move off with a backhand deke that make Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury look way out of position on his pokecheck.
"Not many guys can go in and make that play that he did to score the goal," Carlyle said.
Rather than sit back and try and maintain the 2-1 lead, however, Toronto continued to press, eventually scoring on a late power play when James van Riemsdyk found Phil Kessel in the crease for his seventh goal of the season.
Bolland, who had opened the Leafs scoring by wiring a slapshot past Fleury on a breakaway, then picked up his sixth of the season by firing the puck into the empty net.
Toronto had clearly been the better team over those final 20 minutes, a sign of what Carlyle hopes they can be when they put all of the elements of their game together.
The two game's two main running subplots were both huge positives, too.
No. 1 was Reimer improving his save percentage to .933 and showing he remains very much in the conversation to be the team's starter down the road despite Jonathan Bernier's equally strong play.
The Leafs now have the sixth best team save percentage in the league at .928, even better than last season when they ranked seventh at .917.
"You don't win in this league without goaltending that gives you a chance," Carlyle said. "And Reims gave us a chance. We didn't have a very good second period obviously. We were hemmed in our zone and they had a lot more energy than we did."
No. 2 was Kadri adjusting smoothly to playing 20 minutes between the Leafs two top offensive players when his season average had been closer to 16.
More significant than his highlight reel goal was the fact he matched up against Malkin and basically played the former Hart Trophy winner to a draw, something that may help him earn extra ice time from a coaching staff still asking for consistency from the youngster at both ends of the ice.
"Pretty comfortable," Kadri said of how he felt with Kessel and van Riemsdyk, something that happened only in a few games late last season and in the playoffs when Bozak was hurt. "They're good friends of mine. We get along. It was pretty easy."
The Leafs injury news Saturday night wasn't quite as positive. According to Carlyle, Bozak will miss at least a week to 10 days after being hurt late in the loss to Columbus, with his injury unconfirmed but rumoured to be related to his lower back.
"It'll be a little while here until we get a proper assessment, get an MRI," Carlyle said.
And winger Joffrey Lupul, whose foot was badly bruised by a shot in practice on Thursday, is still a maybe to play on Tuesday in Edmonton.
The Leafs also aren't expecting to get either Nikolai Kulemin (ankle) or Mark Fraser (knee) back in the next week, meaning it'll be a hodgepodge of fill-ins for at least the three games on their upcoming Western Canada road trip.
Based on Saturday's performance, however, Carlyle may be able to lean harder on Bolland, Kadri and the Jay McClement centred third line (with Carter Ashton and Colton Orr) for a while and hope they continue to get a similar effort.
"I think that was a big game for this locker room," said winger David Clarkson, who played 21 minutes in his second game as a Leaf. "It shows us where we have to be and how we have to play."
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