There is nothing particularly logical about how the Toronto Maple Leafs win games – only that they keep doing so.
The Leafs were at it again Wednesday nights, visitors at the Scotiabank Saddledome, falling back on a familiar modus operandi. They were second best in almost every aspect of the game against the Calgary Flames – from generating scoring chances to defensive zone coverage to the fights – but ended up first where it mattered most, on the scoreboard.
First-period goals by Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk gave the Leafs an early lead and they held on for a 4-2 win over the rebuilding Flames.
It was a victory that could be attributed mostly to Jonathan Bernier’s strong work in goal for the Leafs, coupled with the Flames’ occasional inability to shoot straight.
In that opening 20 minutes, dominated by Calgary territorially, the Flames had about five Grade A scoring opportunities, but when Bernier wasn’t making the save, they were missing wide open chances. It meant the Leafs left for Vancouver, where they’ll play the final game of their road trip on Saturday night, with four additional points earned in a 48-hour whirlwind tour through Alberta. It may not be much fun for Leafs’ coach Randy Carlyle, who is looking for more structure in his team’s game, but if it works, he wasn’t about to quibble about the process.
“Tonight, we would say we were handed a nice hand,” said Carlyle, meaning of course just the opposite. “We have a team that hasn’t played since Saturday. We play back-to-back. We’re coming in off a short night and they decide to move the game up one hour earlier. So I’m not saying it’s an excuse, but I am saying, that’s the hand you get dealt and it’s difficult. We’re going to thank our players for their hard work and their commitment. We got the two points. No matter how you get them, it’s still two points in the standings.”
The Leafs had surrendered 35 or more shots in seven of their eight previous games, including 43 in James Reimer’s 4-0 shutout win over the Edmonton Oilers the night before. The Flames managed to put 35 shots on the board in the first two periods alone, something that could be partly attributable to the schedule – Toronto was playing for the second time in two nights – and partly because Calgary is also playing a more wide-open brand of hockey this year in the post-Jarome Iginla, post-Miikka Kiprusoff era. And while goal-scoring hadn’t been a problem for the Flames until last night, preventing goals has been a season-long challenge for them.
The Flames entered the game 29th overall defensively, ahead of only Edmonton, and starting goaltender Karri Ramo wasn’t nearly as sharp or efficient as Bernier. Ramo looked particularly weak in giving up a shorthanded goal to van Riemsdyk with four seconds to go in the opening period, a psychologically damaging goal that gave the Leafs that early cushion.
Mason Raymond, from nearby Cochrane and with about 20 family and friends in attendance, contributed a third-period insurance goal for the Leafs that eventually turned out to be the game winner. That’s because David Jones had a Kris Russell point shot glance off him, change directions and fool Bernier with 5:21 to go in regulation.
Matt Stajan, the ex-Leaf centre, who came to Calgary in the Dion Phaneuf trade, scored the other goal for the Flames.
Paul Ranger iced it for Toronto scoring a shorthanded empty netter with 1:22 remaining in the game.
For the Leafs, it was their first win in Calgary since 2002 and means they finished October with a sparkling 10-4 record and top spot in the Atlantic Division.
“You know what? It’s a long season,” said Bernier, “and there’s going to be positives and negatives. Right now, the way we’re playing, we’re winning and it’s hard for the team to change. We’re scoring some big goals. We got some huge blocked shots and good PK and a good power play. That’s all we need, I guess.”
Toronto is known for its physical approach and as a response, Calgary scratched a 17-minute-per-night centre, Mikael Backlund, to get two enforcers, Tim Jackman and Brian McGrattan, into the game. McGrattan tangled with the Leafs’ Frazier McLaren early and then Carter Ashton fought Flames’ defenceman Shane O’Brien after Ashton checked Flames’ defenceman Derek Smith into the boards from behind with 4:04 to go in the second period. McLaren didn’t return because of a scratched eye, while Ashton suffered a bloody nose.
Early on, Phaneuf was booed virtually every time he touched the puck, an odd development if only because the crowd seemed divided between those cheering for Calgary and those supporting the Maple Leafs. What is usually a sea of red sweaters in the stands was liberally sprinkled with Toronto blue.
“Our goaltending has been very good all year,” said Phaneuf, “and it was outstanding again. Bernie obviously made some big saves for us. They threw a lot of pucks. They’re a younger team, with lots of speed and energy and that’s what they did tonight.
“We’ll take the points, that’s the main thing. We found a way to win. It’s not easy coming into this building, playing last night, them sitting here waiting. We knew they’d come and they did that and we were able to weather it. We’ll take the win and move on.”
The Flames did manage one minor feat – they managed to cool off the red-hot Phil Kessel for a night, holding him off the score sheet after he’d managed 10 points in his previous four games.
With three days now until their next game, Carlyle was hoping to get forward Nikolai Kulemin and defenceman Mark Fraser back from the injury list.
“We’re trying to make sure we have more players available to us for the weekend,” said Carlyle, “but then again, we don’t know what the diagnosis of Frasier McLaren or where that will take us.”