At a team practice on Friday, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul insisted “one win, and we get our confidence back.”
Okay, they have the win - a nice ‘Welcome to Toronto’ present for new coach Randy Carlyle.
But the sample size may need to get a little bigger before any conclusive pronouncements can be made on the confidence thing.
The Leafs looked better than they have over the past week in a Saturday evening match against their old enemy, the Montreal Canadiens, and yes, they notched a 3-1 victory, their first in 17 days (a span of seven games).
“That felt good,” said goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, who kept his team in the game with Montreal buzzing on the power-play in the second period, and made two timely saves on Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole in the late going.
The Swede stopped 21 Montreal shots en route to his career-high 17th victory of the season, Carey Price took the loss for the Habs, who were out-shot 42-22.
The Leafs now sit three points behind the Winnipeg Jets, who occupy the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern conference, and Toronto has one game in hand.
According to Sportsclubstats.com, a statistical modelling site, the Leafs have roughly a one in five chance of making the playoffs - that doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a significant improvement over the situation just 24 hours ago.
And if the decision to fire Ron Wilson was designed to shake the team out of its lethargy, it did.
So it was the Leafs made it a winning debut for Carlyle, who admitted to feeling jitters before his first game in charge of an NHL bench in five months.
“Obviously it’s the best way to start,” he said with a broad smile.
As to what he told the team before the game: “I asked them to skate and to be themselves.”
Somehow, that seems a little too simple to explain what happened this night.
Defenceman Carl Gunnarson provided a little bit more detailed insight, saying Carlyle’s injunction to always keep three players behind the puck.
“He’s really pushing getting the third guy, always three guys above the puck . . . not let any three-on-twos or two-on-ones, that’s probably the biggest part defensively,” he said. “I thought we did a pretty good job with it tonight, it was easy playing D, we had good back pressure, guys were tracking the puck, we took care of the middle and just let guys chase the puck back.”
The Habs opened the scoring in the first after a defensive mix-up involving Mike Frattin and Luke Schenn, who collided in their own end and created space for Pacioretty to find David Desharnais with a pass at the side of the net. The shifty centre sent a pass across to Cole, who snapped the puck past a diving Gunnarson.
But if the Leafs have shown a propensity of late to fold when giving up the first goal, they didn’t this time.
“They got the first goal, but I don’t think we played worse after that, we stayed up and we bounced back. It seemed like the guys kept flying up the wing,” Gunnarson said. “The last couple of games when we’ve had that first goal against, the energy’s been dying, but we picked it up today, so that’s a good sign.”
Frattin evened the score from a scrambled faceoff in the second period, scooping a wrist shot high over Price’s glove.
From that point, Carlyle matched Frattin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur against Montreal’s top unit.
Midway through the third period, Grabovski put Toronto’s nose ahead on a nice feed from Clarke MacArthur - in that case the Belarusian was left with time to pick a corner when Rene Bourque and Yannick Weber got crossed up in the Montreal end.
And with the Habs pressing for a tying goal in the final two minutes, Cole drew an interference penalty after chopping Dion Phaneuf’s stick out of his hands.
After winning a faceoff in the Montreal zone, Grabovski converted an astute no-look pass from Fratting for his second of the night and 20th of the season.
“I enjoy it here,” said the former Hab, who pointed out that only Price remains from the teams he played on in Montreal.
No kidding. Grabovski now has 17 points in 23 career games against his former club, and 13 points in 11 career games at the Bell Centre.
“No pressure. No Kostitsyns either,” he said, referring to his Andrei and Sergei, his countrymen, former teammates and occasional nemeses, who now play in Nashville.
The Habs are now 12-18-5 at home this year, and have lost 23 games in which they’ve led this season.