It had been a dull night, one of the uglier games the Toronto Maple Leafs have been a part of this season, with few great chances and no goals to speak of in what coach Randy Carlyle called “typical” New Jersey Devils hockey.
But as Phil Kessel wound up with the puck and skated back through his own zone, circling inside the blueline and building speed during a third period power play, the game was on his stick.
He didn’t disappoint.
Kessel pushed hard through the neutral zone, beat out a checker, split the Devils defence and popped his 10th goal of the season between Cory Schneider’s pads for a 1-0 lead with less than 12 minutes left.
It was as highlight reel a goal as they come, a true one-man show in a game where Toronto desperately needed one, with Kessel even drawing a penalty as he potted it.
It was spectacular – and it was enough to help them win the game.
“It reminded me of Frank Mahovlich,” said Randy Carlyle, Kessel’s coach, referencing the Hall of Famer who had 12 seasons with 30-plus goals beginning way back in 1960-61. “The wind up, come back inside your own line and attack. That’s old time hockey. I mean real old time hockey.
“Those are difference maker goals.”
The Leafs downed the struggling Devils 2-1 in a shootout on Friday night, with Kessel netting his team’s only goal in regulation and James van Riemsdyk – playing centre for the first time in the NHL – scoring the only marker in the shootout.
Van Riemsdyk’s winner bailed out Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier, in particular, as he had ruined an otherwise perfect night when he whiffed badly on an easy save with five minutes left in the third period to give New Jersey some life.
But the Leafs were then the better team in overtime after coming on late in regulation, led by some strong play from their new second line centred by Nazem Kadri with Mason Raymond and David Clarkson on his wings.
“There wasn’t a person in the building that felt as bad as he did,” Carlyle said of the stinker Bernier allowed off the stick of Devils winger Michael Ryder. “But I thought our bench remained composed and we didn’t sit back. We attacked. And we didn’t stop.”
“Didn’t want to have a shutout I guess,” Bernier joked afterward. “Practice my shootout.”
The two points continued a remarkable roll for Toronto to start the year. This was their 11th win in just their 16th game, sending them to Boston for a Saturday night rematch of the first round of the 2013 playoffs on a high.
There were both positive and negative signs for the Leafs on Friday. Carlyle was particularly happy with how his team drew penalties – they had six power plays in all – but Toronto’s even strength play was again an issue.
The Devils outshot them 28-14 at even strength but their time in the box proved costly, with the Leafs generating 11 shots on goal at 5-on-4, including Kessel’s incredible opener.
The game was really a microcosm of how different these two teams are, as New Jersey likes to control the puck and throw as much junk toward the goal as possible, something that has led to them posting one of the NHL’s lowest shooting percentages two years running.
“They’re a tough team for a goalie,” Bernier explained. “They keep it simple but at the same time they shoot it from the point with traffic in front and draw the tips.”
The Leafs, however, are concerned with making the most out of their more limited opportunities, which is obviously far easier to do when you have a game breaker like Kessel who can skate through 75 per cent of the opposition and beat a goalie like Schneider.
“He’s one of the best players in the league and he showed it there,” Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said.
Toronto’s finishing ability has been a focal point of their season so far as they’ve been outshot heavily night after night, but the Kadri line in particular showed indications of a solid cycle game despite being buried with handling defensive zone draws all night.
The van Riemsdyk at centre experiment also went off with only minor issues, although he looked confused and disjointed at times and the Leafs spent plenty of time in their zone with him on the ice.
His lack of experience on the draw may also prove a problem, but that’s one that can probably be mitigated by the skills of newcomer Jerred Smithson, who logged a dependable, uneventful 10 minutes in his Leafs debut.
While van Riemsdyk finished at 40 per cent in the circle, Smithson won eight of his nine draws, often taking them in the D zone before hopping back on the bench, reminiscent of how Carlyle used former faceoff ace David Steckel in year’s past.
It was the kind of workmanlike effort the Leafs had lacked in sputtering along in recent games but that, combined with Kessel’s heroics, was what kept them in the type of tight-checking game they’re still learning to play in.
“You knew the type of game it was going to be,” Carlyle said.
“They’re a team that doesn’t give up a whole lot,” Phaneuf said. “They’ve been like that for a while… but I thought as a group we stuck to the way we wanted to play and obviously a huge individual effort by Phil to score that big goal for us.”
As for Carlyle’s Mahovlich comparison, the praise was lost on Kessel, who admitted he wasn’t sure who the former Leafs great was.
“Not really,” Kessel said, chuckling.