“I hear they boo people here.”
That they do, Randy Carlyle. But they also cheer and serenade and – in rare instances when one of their own returns home – stand and applaud.
That was the treatment the Toronto Maple Leafs received on Thursday at the MTS Centre, with Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel getting the boos when they touched the puck, James Reimer being serenaded and coach Carlyle the standing ovation.
But what could have simply been a sleepy midweek meeting between two rebuilding clubs in the Eastern Conference quickly gained plenty of intrigue when the Leafs came roaring back and toppled the hometown Winnipeg Jets 3-2 in the charged atmosphere of The Hanger.
More importantly, Kessel – goalless all season long and the subject of headlines almost daily – was finally on the board, as he rifled the winner into the top corner in the final minutes of the game.
“It’d been a while, right?” Kessel said of his drought, which stretched back to March 31 of last season and ended 314 days later with his long-awaited 100th goal as a Leaf. “It’s a big win for us. I don’t know if we had the best game tonight, but we battled hard.”
“You just hope that he can use this as a building block,” Carlyle said. “Goal scorers have streaks and we hope this is the start of a streak. Not many people could put that puck where he put it. A lot of guys try.”
Kessel’s heroics capped off a nice few days back in Winnipeg for Carlyle – an original Jet who spent nearly 20 years in the city as a player, coach and general manager of their previous two pro teams – who talked at length about weathering the “wave of emotion” the fans would bring.
That environment appeared to get to his team, however. They were flat as a pancake to start the game, sputtering through with few chances and some early humiliation when new enforcer Frazer McLaren had his face rearranged by Jets tough guy Chris Thorburn.
It wasn’t until the game’s final 10 minutes or so that Toronto seemed to recover, first on a goal by Matt Frattin – perhaps the best Leaf on the night even in just 13 minutes of ice time – and then 54 seconds later with Kessel’s winner on the power play.
“That’s a huge relief,” Frattin said of his high-profile teammate getting his first. “You can definitely see he’s had a smile on his face ever since the game ended. That’s good to see.”
Toronto was down 1-0 early in the second and then 2-1 late, playing one of its weakest road games through 50 minutes in the face of all that hostility from the crowd.
Much has been said of the reborn Jets and their terrific home-ice advantage, but the numbers paint a picture of something far out of the ordinary. Winnipeg, which had just 84 points a year ago, has won at a 104-point pace at the MTS Centre and just a 64-point clip anywhere else.
The honeymoon of having a team is also far from over, as after 46 home games, the fans remain as engaged as they were in the early portions of last season, even through games as sluggish as this one often was.
This remains an incredibly difficult ticket to get, leaving the bars and restaurants nearby to handle the extra thousands in capacity every night.
“They’re the same,” Jets winger Bryan Little said of the fans. “It seems every time you need some fans, they’re excited. I think now that they’ve had the Jets for a year, they want to see us do better, they want to see us in the playoffs, but the support is always there.”
Doing better and making the playoffs remains very much a work in progress, however. This loss was Winnipeg’s fourth in their last five games, as they fell to 4-5-1 on the year and three points back of Toronto.
The entertainment value on this night was fairly low, too. Save for the fight and a lengthy ovation for Carlyle, the first period was a write-off, setting up a curious second frame where the Jets and Leafs traded shorthanded goals – including a terrific individual effort by Toronto’s Tyler Bozak in creating and then scoring on a breakaway.
Winnipeg’s go-ahead goal was then the kind of nondescript point shot figuring in so many tight NHL games these days, with Grant Clitsome belting the puck off teammate Andrew Ladd’s stick and past a beleaguered Reimer early in the third.
With the Leafs mustering so little, it seemed to be a pivotal point in the game, and the building erupted as they sensed yet another home victory coming.
“Reiiii-merrr, Reiii-merrr,” came the chants, louder than ever, as the crowd gave it to another local player done good.
But with time winding down, Frattin finally knotted the score, as he crashed the front of the net and redirected in the tying marker off his shin pad with five minutes to play.
The goal was his sixth in just eight games after initially not making the team out of camp.
“Over time, you kind of figure out the game and how to score,” Frattin said. “The last couple goals is just going to the net with my stick down and using my body in front. Just picking up rebounds and they’re banking in off me. You’re not going to get too many fancy ones in this league.”
Then came Kessel’s contribution, which was the kind of pinpoint laser wrist shot he pulled out so often last season en route to finishing sixth in NHL scoring.
As wins go, this was far from textbook, but in a league where so little separates the mediocre from one another, that one little flick of the wrist was the difference.
“I wouldn’t say that it would be one we were going to frame,” Carlyle said. “We gotta feel fortunate that our power play finally came through and our top goal scorer finally hit the back of the net. That’s a great sign for us.”