The stat line looked awfully familiar.
Joffrey Lupul from Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak.
And, on Tuesday night, it appeared more than once.
The Toronto Maple Leafs gutted out a 3-2 win over the lowly Florida Panthers in their 34th game of the season, with a third period breakthrough coming only after coach Randy Carlyle reunited his top line of a year ago for the final 20 minutes.
It was a good thing the change came when it did, too.
This was a game that could have easily gone the other way, as Florida pressed hard for just their 10th win of the season and Toronto looked gassed in their fifth game in seven nights as part of a zany shortened schedule that has them often up against rested teams.
But Lupul struck for both key goals in quick succession – the first a go-ahead marker to make it 2-1 and the winner less than three minutes later – continuing a red-hot run of six goals in four games since returning from a broken arm 10 days earlier.
While the trio didn’t start the game together, there were plenty of signs the reunion was coming. James van Riemsdyk – the man Lupul would replace – had been benched a night earlier in Boston and was on a short leash after all three had been on the ice for plenty of goals against over the last dozen games.
When that didn’t appear to be changing early in this one – which began with a lopsided first half – the coach knew he had to make a move.
“What made it easy is we didn’t have a lot going,” Carlyle said. “We were a step and a half behind… We had to do something. We just couldn’t continue to go on that way.”
Florida’s Tomas Fleischmann opened the game’s scoring just seven minutes in, putting a shot off of Leafs defenceman Mark Fraser and in as part of a comedy of errors in the first 30 minutes that included Mikhail Grabovski bailing head first on a breakaway.
Far from funny, however, as the situation was so dire that at one point the Air Canada Centre crowd was booing the home side.
Up against a last place club plagued by injuries, the Leafs were still sitting down 1-0 near the midway point, hemmed in their own end, outshot 23-11 and looking every bit the tired side after taking three of four points in their last two games against the Boston Bruins.
Where Toronto finally found life was when captain Dion Phaneuf made something out of nothing, quieting the scattered boo-birds by faking a shot, shuffling in closer and then wiring his sixth of the season past Jacob Markstrom to make it 1-1.
That then held up until Lupul rejoined Kessel and Bozak on a power play to start the third period, and a quick tally there encouraged Carlyle to keep going to the trio until they struck again.
The rest of the way, it seemed chance after chance was coming from the line – something that shouldn’t really come as a surprise given Lupul and Kessel had career years and made the all-star game feeding off one another a year ago.
“We were fortunate enough that when we made the change that it sparked,” Carlyle said. “We started to play the way we’re capable of playing.”
Much of the credit for the combination working was due to Lupul, who has played like a man possessed since coming back after a two month layoff that was followed by a two-game suspension.
“That’s probably an apt way of putting it,” said netminder Ben Scrivens, who was solid in making 40 saves in the win. “I’m sure he’s sick of the press box.”
“It’s tough being out for that length of time,” Lupul said. “And I was out at the end of last year, too.”
Meanwhile, more and more, the buzz around this team is that the recently re-signed winger is basically the de facto captain, a player who is articulate and intelligent and equally popular with the media and his teammates – which can be a rare feat in Toronto.
More importantly, Lupul’s game seems to be as strong as ever, and he is adding a physical element that van Riemsdyk wasn’t able to bring consistently to a top line that – for all its goals – had been out chanced for most of the year.
His play even pushed Carlyle to admit after the game that he had never thought this was possible back when the two were together in Anaheim and Lupul was ultimately dealt away.
“No, I didn’t,” Carlyle said. “We probably never would have traded him. But the issue was we had to give something up to get Chris Pronger, too.”
Not that Carlyle is alone in overlooking the former seventh overall pick. At 29, Lupul has surprised almost everyone in the hockey world, becoming the kind of a player who is now quite an addition to a potential playoff team for the final 18 games – including a dominant first four games since the injury and 14 more to go.
Especially when the Leafs are now sitting comfortably in sixth place in the Eastern Conference after finding a way to earn points in six straight games (3-0-3) in a tough part of their schedule.
For all their warts, they now look like they’re finally going to make it, and reuniting one of the few sure things from a year ago may wind up being yet another reason why.
“It’s been exciting to watch the team play and grow,” Lupul said of his time in the press box. “I really felt that, even when we were losing some games while I was watching, I could see the identity of a good team beginning to come. You can see guys settling into their roles and young players improving and becoming more of a factor.
“The whole time I was just excited to come back and knowing I could add another element.”
Quote of the night:
"You're pounding on a horse that's giving up down the stretch and you're hoping that he finds a little bit more heart," Carlyle said after the game, referencing his team overcoming obviously tired legs to win an NHL-leading 14th game in which they were out shot.
“That’s what I believe they did. They reached back and found some more. And they’re to be commended because that’s not an easy situation. It didn’t look like we could do it for the better part of the game, but then they reached back and found it.”