You could have switched the jerseys – blue and white for black and gold – and few in the hockey world would have been surprised.
As it was, though, this was a bit of a stunner.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were all over the puck, dominating the play and hemming the Boston Bruins in their zone for a full 20 minutes to start a pivotal, must-win Game 5 looking very much like the better team.
They outshot Boston 19-8 and took draws in the offensive zone again and again, halted from taking a one- or two-goal lead only by more brilliant play from netminder Tuukka Rask.
And the Leafs did all this in Boston, where they had won just twice in regulation in their last 15 trips to the TD Garden.
For a team that had been thumped 8-0 here a little more than 13 months earlier, this stood as a definable turning point, a shift where new coach Randy Carlyle could finally say that his preseason goal of restoring “respect” to the franchise was finally coming to fruition.
The Leafs weren’t just back in the playoffs, eking out an existence after nine years away.
They were succeeding in them.
Toronto pulled off another remarkable upset on Friday night, narrowly downing the Bruins 2-1 to extend the series to a sixth game back at the Air Canada Centre and give them life after a heartbreaking overtime loss in Game 4.
Through 40 minutes, it was one of the Leafs best efforts of the season, too, from netminder James Reimer’s flawless goaltending to two terrific individual efforts by Tyler Bozak and Clarke MacArthur giving their team a 2-0 lead by early in the third period.
Just in those areas alone, Toronto got elements that had been sorely missed earlier in the series – excellent goaltending and production from its secondary scorers – two key differences that shifted the momentum in a big way.
The Leafs had to hang on for dear life late – with the Bruins whiffing on shots and clanging posts until big Zdeno Chara finally beat Reimer with nine minutes left and really brought the crowd to a full throaty roar – but hang on they (eventually) did.
They killed a late penalty with a unit led by Jay McClement and Nikolai Kulemin that had been getting the job done all year.
They blocked plenty of shots, with a key one coming late by captain Dion Phaneuf, who had been the goat on the Bruins OT winner two nights earlier.
Mostly, however, there was Reimer, whose acrobatics allowed him to outplay Rask for the first time in the series and preserve the victory.
“He was unbelievable,” Phaneuf said. “He made that stretched out save in the second [on Patrice Bergeron], just one of the many that he made. He’s been unbelievable for us all year… and tonight he was the difference.”
Even considering the white-knuckle third period, this was a solid all-around performance, one that showed just how far the Leafs have come from the ugly way they had limped through the tail end of their season.
Most impressive of all was how they had set the tone right from the start, using a power play in the opening minutes to pin the Bruins down low and generate chance after chance on the seemingly airtight Rask.
It was a 20-minute stretch that threatened to be the type where absolutely everything goes right but nothing goes in, potentially leading to a “what-more-can-we-do?” letdown in the intermission.
But that didn’t happen in Game 5, at least not in the second, as the Leafs showed resilience to strike first – with Bozak doing the honours on a breakaway during a brutal Bruins power play – moments after Reimer made that game-changing save on Bergeron at the other end.
Then, two minutes into the third, MacArthur pulled off some heroics of his own, picking off an errant pass in the neutral zone, skating hard to the net, cutting in front and deftly tucking it in past Rask for his second goal in two games after two games in the press box.
“He was obviously a little upset sitting out,” Bozak said of MacArthur, a curious healthy scratch in Games 2 and 3 of the series. “You never want to sit out at this time of year. Maybe it put a little spark in him because he’s played unbelievable hockey since he’s been back.”
“To be able to get the game winner like that was a great feeling,” MacArthur said, joking he had eaten his Wheaties in the morning.
The remaining 18 minutes of the game were pretty hairy for Toronto, with much of it spent in the 64 feet from goal line to blueline in the Leafs end.
From where Toronto had been less than two weeks ago, however, this was quite a shift.
Recall that, over their final 12 games of the regular season, Toronto had more often than not been the weaker team, outshot by 10 or more a night on average and relying on Reimer to scrounge up enough points to narrowly clinch their first playoff berth in nine years.
But other than a lopsided Game 1, that hasn’t been the storyline for their series with the Bruins, as the Leafs have gone basically shot for shot with a much more veteran-laden team, playing them to a draw most of the last four games.
And the respect Carlyle had wanted is long since there on the other side.
“I said that the last time we played a [regular season] game here how good they’ve become,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said at one point earlier in the week. “They are in the playoffs now. I guess you guys [in the media] need proof. Well, now you got it.”
“There’s a certain amount of pride in making the playoffs – I mean it’s not an easy thing to do,” Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul had mused prior to their latest win. “But we’re not here to lose. We’re here to win this series, and if we don’t win this series, then we’re going to be disappointed.”
Disappointment, however, will have to wait, as the pregame talk from the plucky visitors proved to be far more than just talk.
The Leafs came to play in this game and this series, and even down 3-1 to a team they were expected to lose handily to, they weren’t ready to concede anything.
If that isn’t the first early steps on the path to respectability in the hockey world, what is?
“We’re nowhere near as fragile as we were last year,” Leafs defenceman Cody Franson said, explaining the team’s transformation into one that can now challenge the suddenly reeling Bruins. “We really tried to focus on battling highs and lows a lot better… Situations like [losing in overtime] the other night might have deflated us a bit in the past, but we felt we gave it a good effort.
“There were a lot of positives in that last game that we carried over to this one. And we knew we had to come out hard [in Game 5] to give ourselves a chance.”
Carlyle, the old hand at this that he is, realizes that things won’t get easier from here and that winning two more in a row against a veteran Bruins team will hardly be easy.
Earning respect is one thing. Knocking off the better team is another.
“I’m sure that we’ve poked the Bruins,” Carlyle said. “They’re going to be a very desperate hockey club come Sunday night, and we’ve got to be equally as desperate.”Report Typo/Error