This was not a win a coach could love.
But, every so often, the hockey gods are on your side and you can win a game or two with just 13 shots on goal.
Fittingly, the Toronto Maple Leafs chose to do so on Mats Sundin night, too, honouring No. 13 with a long-awaited victory over the Boston Bruins on Saturday.
“When you win a hockey game and you only get 13 shots and the opposition has 33, I don’t think you can say that was your game plan,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said afterwards. “But I thought our goaltender made some big stops… We were opportunistic and got some timely goals.”
That James Reimer did, and the bounce back game for the young netminder could well mean he now goes on a run of starts over the final third of the shortened season.
Beyond just the shot count, however, the attempts told an even deeper story of just how often the Bruins had the puck in this one, as they forced Toronto to block 31 more (the most a Leaf team has blocked in two years) and missed the net with another 16.
Added up, it was a difference of 80 to 38, and few teams in the NHL win games with a margin that wide.
Even so, that was hardly the whole tale. As Carlyle alluded, the Leafs earned this win in other ways, with Reimer obviously outplaying Bruins backup Anton Khudobin – who was pulled after three goals on 11 shots – and the defence keeping as many shots to the outside as possible, especially as the barrage came late.
The win was even more important given the Leafs hadn’t beaten Boston in eight straight – a span of nearly two years – and entered the game having taken just five of the previous 35 meetings in regulation.
No matter how ugly the game was, this was a moral victory as much as an anything for the franchise, especially with the rematch coming two days later in Boston, where the Bruins are 13-2-3 against Toronto in their last 18 games.
“That was a game that we were pretty desperate for,” said Nazem Kadri, who moved into a tie for the team lead in scoring with his 14th goal five minutes in and has been the rare Leaf that has produced against Boston in his short career.
“I think coming out and scoring the first goal really set the tempo and let them know that we’re not going to roll over. It was nice to get the two points. I heard we were on like an eight- or nine-game slide [against the Bruins].”
On Saturday, Kadri gave his team the early boost – taking a terrific feed from Clarke MacArthur and putting a shot off the post and in – and the Leafs were easily the better team in the opening 10 or 15 minutes.
The Bruins pushback then came hard late in the first period but was muted when Mikhail Grabovski wired in the game’s second goal early in the second frame, as he scored for just the eighth time of the season.
Toronto then completed the run of goals early in periods with another to open the third, enforcer Frazer McLaren doing the honours to push the lead to 3-0 when he pulled the puck between his legs (and then Khudobin’s) for his third.
“I guess I finally got one with my stick, you could say,” McLaren said, referencing his earlier two markers that went off his leg and chest. “That’s how I’m going to get them – right in the blue paint.”
“It’s a great play by a big man,” Carlyle said. “It’s always good for your team morale when those guys can make a contribution.”
After that, the Bruins really began their full court press, keeping Toronto hemmed in their own zone for much of the third period and getting rewarded with their first goal a minute after McLaren’s.
Ultimately it was too little too late, however, as while defenceman Andrew Ference made it 3-2 with 1:16 to play, they couldn’t find the equalizer.
“There was not enough fight in our team tonight to deserve the win,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said.
The Leafs, meanwhile, were playing shorthanded on the back end, as John-Michael Liles left the game with a leg injury (believed to be a badly sprained ankle) in the second, leaving Carlyle scrambling to mix and match his pairings the rest of the way.
“They were coming hard,” Leafs defenceman Carl Gunnarsson said. “It was tough, too, when Johnny went out with five D and they were pressuring. But I think we held our ground pretty good by playing simple and trying to get pucks deep and do whatever we could to fend them off.
“We had that lead to go off so that was good. We knew they were coming. And Reims played big back there. He was great.”
Any resurgence from Reimer would go a long way to getting the Leafs to the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
Saturday’s win gives Toronto 37 points after 32 games in a year where something in the realm of just 52 will be good enough to make the postseason. That adds up to roughly a 7-8-1 finish to get there, something that will be more than plausible if the goaltending holds up.
Carlyle, however, was about as nonchalant as he has been this season after a win, saying that his team needs to realize they have to be better to pull another two points out against one of the best teams in the East.
“My message after the game was to be businesslike about the win and to recognize that we have three more periods in a very tough building where we haven’t had success before,” Carlyle said. “And it’s going to take a more intense effort than we had tonight to go in there and have success. That’s our mandate.”