They’re making it a series – and, wouldn’t you know it, Phil Kessel is even on the scoreboard.
The Toronto Maple Leafs pulled a complete 180 from their terrible Game 1 performance in Game 2 on Saturday night, using a slew of lineup changes and some hard-fought line matching to down the Boston Bruins 4-2 and tie the series.
Leading the way for Toronto was alternate captain Joffrey Lupul, who netted the Leafs first two goals and was a force playing on a previously unseen trio with Tyler Bozak and previous healthy scratch Matt Frattin.
Now the underdog Leafs head back home for their first playoff games at the Air Canada Centre since 2004 having grabbed home-ice advantage in the series.
“It’ll be pretty crazy,” Lupul said. “It’s been nine years, and us coming back [with the series at] 1-1, I’m getting chills thinking about it already. I’m sure it’ll be an unbelievable atmosphere.”
While Lupul was the game’s obvious first star, the fascinating side plot of the night was the matchup between Bruins captain Zdeno Chara and Kessel, an ex-Bruin who has been absolutely dominated by his former team since joining the Leafs in 2009.
Leafs coach Randy Carlyle ended up winning the coaching duel as he successfully used Frattin as a bit of a decoy on the first line and shuffled Kessel all over the place to escape him having to skate down Chara’s wing.
Chara and Kessel played one another to a draw for much of the game, but Carlyle’s work finally paid off to open the third period with the Leafs already up 2-1, as Bruins coach Claude Julien dealt Chara a rare shift away from Kessel to open the period.
As soon as Chara returned to the bench, Kessel jumped on, setting up some heroics on what became the game’s winning goal.
Moments later, Nazem Kadri flipped a pinpoint long pass up the middle of the ice to send Kessel on a breakaway, and he deftly slipped the puck between Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask’s pads to give his team a two-goal lead.
The highlight reel play was Kessel’s first ever even strength marker and only his fourth goal in 24 games against his former team, and it held up as the decisive goal after the Bruins came storming back looking for the equalizer late in the game.
The Leafs bench, meanwhile, erupted after it went in, with high fives all around in celebration of their quiet leading scorer finally breaking his goose egg against his former team.
“I think I celebrated harder than he did on the bench,” Frattin said. “It was good for him – that was a huge goal for us.”
“I was happy, obviously,” Kessel said. “It’s been a long time versus those guys, but like I said, I got lucky.”
Overall, this was the Leafs best game in at least two or three weeks and one of their better efforts on the season.
After being dominated 40-20 on the shot clock and 71-33 in shot attempts in Game 1, Toronto was downed only 41-32 in shots and 72-57 in attempts on the night in a much better showing than most of their recent outings.
“We worked hard and we competed and got a few breaks that went our way,” Carlyle said, crediting the victory to moving the puck more effectively than Game 1 rather than his line matchups. “We know we’re in for a Bruins club that is going to force you to play the game up the walls. You’re going to have to earn everything you get.”
Meanwhile, three of the four Leafs that Carlyle added to the lineup – Jake Gardiner, Frattin and Ryan Hamilton, who all made their NHL playoff debut – were a huge part of that positive shift, with the trio of key cogs from the Toronto Marlies deep playoff run a year ago bringing plenty of enthusiasm to the proceedings.
Gardiner, in particular, was a welcome addition, helping the Leafs breakout substantially despite a couple glaring turnovers at various points in the game.
Playing on a pairing with another newcomer in Ryan O’Byrne, he gave the Leafs a solid 18 minutes in his first game in more than two weeks and even picked up his first postseason point with some good maneuvering and an assist on Lupul’s first goal on the power play.
That marker tied things at 1-1 after Nathan Horton had opened the game’s scoring two minutes into the second period, crashing the crease and putting a rebound off his skate and in.
The short-lived Bruins lead led into what was an extremely entertaining, back-and-forth middle frame where the Leafs hit the post several times and jumped ahead on the back of two Lupul goals in the span of less than seven minutes.
Then came Kessel’s goal 53 seconds into the third, followed by plenty of Boston pressure that paid off with defenceman Johnny Boychuk putting a high shot through plenty of traffic for his second of the series with 10:35 to play.
But with the Bruins dominating the play late, Leafs netminder James Reimer held down the fort and James van Riemsdyk scored a brilliant insurance marker with three minutes to play to give the Leafs their first playoff win since April 30 of 2004.
Game 3 goes on Monday night in Toronto, where the only NHL city that has been waiting nine years for postseason hockey will be set to explode come puck drop at 7 p.m.
“We think it’s a great thing for our city,” Carlyle said. “But we’ve got a job to do and we’ve got to focus… We have to stay focused on what we can control and we have to prepare ourselves to play a better club on Monday. I guarantee you they will be better than they were tonight.”
“It’s one game,” Frattin said. “It’s just like their first game. They got a win. We’ve got a win. Now it’s a best of five – we’ve just got to take it like that.”