The Toronto Maple Leafs extended their losing streak to four games by losing a game they should have won.
But on Sunday they managed to break it by winning a game they should have lost, prevailing over the New Jersey Devils 3-2 in a shootout at the Air Canada Centre. The Devils were the better team throughout the game, outshooting the Leafs 38-25 in regulation and overtime, not that that is a particularly daunting challenge, but they were undone by their futility in the shootout.
Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier stopped all three Devils shooters while James van Riemsdyk managed the lone shootout goal for the Leafs to secure a 3-2 win, which left the Devils 0-7 in shootouts this season.
The main thing for the Leafs, though, was finally winning a game to ease the growing pressure around the team.
"Well, we could breathe," Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said. "There's been a lot of gasping going on. Even in this game there was a lot of gasping going on given how tight it was."
A lot of the pressure was growing on Carlyle thanks to the losing, mostly from the media. But van Riemsdyk, who had a regulation goal to go with this shootout heroics, rejected the notion the players are not in sync with the coaches.
"We have the utmost confidence in the coaching staff and what they bring to the table," van Riemsdyk said. "As far as preparation goes, I'd say we're probably the most prepared team as far as the information we get to play night in and night out.
"That's just a cop-out when teams are struggling. People are going to … not us, but members of the media, might be looking to point fingers and we're not looking to point fingers."
In a season full of dreadful games, the first 60 minutes ranked with the worst of them even if the score was 2-2 by the end of the third period. Maybe it was the rare Sunday night home game, or maybe it was the bout with the flu that hit five Leaf players, who all managed to play, but the most polite thing that could be said about the Maple Leafs was that they looked out of sorts.
They started the game in a disorganized state, as if working on a Sunday was a foreign concept. By the 9:09 mark of the first period, Devils had a 7-1 edge in shots and it looked like the best Bernier could hope for was to get out of the game with his health intact.
And then a funny thing happened. As it often did back some months ago when the Leafs were getting wildly outshot but still winning games. The first line of Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and van Riemsdyk had its first good shift of the game more than 15 minutes into the proceedings and they produced the game's first goal when Bozak pounced on a rebound.
But any hope this was a wake-up call quickly dissipated. The pedestrian pace returned quickly, although the visitors could take a share of the blame as well. The Devils are not financially able enough to afford much elite talent, so they specialize in slowing games down to suit their defensive style, with the Leafs only too happy to oblige and they gave up a power-play goal to Adam Henrique early in the second period.
However, the oddness of the game turned in the Leafs' favour when the referees called two consecutive high-sticking penalties on the Devils. By the end of the period, the New Jersey took two more high-sticking calls for a total of four. But the Leafs were only able to capitalize on the second one, at 5:56 when van Riemsdyk slapped in a rebound for his 17 goal of the season.
True to form, though, the Leafs could only hang on to the lead for 27 seconds thanks to their defensive miscues. Cody Franson was caught up ice and Ryane Clowe scored his first goal of the season for the Devils to tie the score 2-2.
To be fair, the Leafs should have gone into the third period with the lead but were the victims of a bad call by referee Ghislain Hebert. When Bozak knocked in a rebound on a power play midway through the second, Hebert emphatically waved it off, calling van Riemsdyk for contact on Devils goaltender Cory Schneider. The replays showed van Reimsdyk made as much contact with Schneider as the rest of the Leafs did with the Devils all evening.
The correct call might have resulted in a rare regulation-time win for the Leafs (they only have two in their last 26 games). They sagged noticeably after the call but survived to get to the shootout.
"When they took the goal away, we had 15 scoring chances to that point and for the next 12 minutes we didn't get any," Carlyle said. "It just shows the mental state and how fragile we were at that point.
"Hopefully, this relieves a little stress involved for our hockey club and we can get back to the way we are capable of playing."
The Leafs players were inclined to brush off the call once they secured the win, but not Carlyle.
"When you review it in the replay it's hard to take the side of the official," the coach said. "I don't know any other way to put it politely."
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