The Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t going to earn many style points for this one.
But even after coughing up a 3-0 lead and being out shot 40-18 against a veteran Detroit Red Wings team, the Leafs somehow found a way to win, pulling out a 4-3 victory when Joffrey Lupul’s timely winner came with 13 minutes to play.
There was an element of luck there – after all, it’s not often that Henrik Zetterberg gifts a giveaway late in a game, as he did to Lupul behind the Wings net – but there was also some determination for the Leafs and a few key stops from netminder Jonas Gustavsson.
And despite being dominated at times possession wise, Toronto won for the third time in a row in 2012.
“We bent a little bit, but we didn’t break,” said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, who played 24 minutes despite wearing a much bigger visor than normal due to taking a puck to the face – and sporting a grotesque lump as a result – in Toronto’s last game.
“It was a real test for our group and we really responded in the right way. It’s a big win for our team.”
The Leafs surprised almost everyone in the building in jumping out to a three-goal lead just 11:36 into the game, with Phil Kessel, Phaneuf and David Steckel all scoring on an off night for Wings netminder Jimmy Howard.
Detroit appeared overwhelmed, at least momentarily, but a young Toronto’s team speed, but at 3-0, Wings coach Mike Babcock called a timeout and that seemed to cue their charge back into the game.
“I told our team, the way the Red Wings finished the first period, they’re going to be even better in the second,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “We’ve got to be ready for it.”
Detroit then piled up a 14-2 lead on the shot clock in the second period, getting goals from Todd Bertuzzi (who deflected a puck with a stick high enough to bring on a lengthy review) and Niklas Kronwall to make it close and set up a wild final frame.
In the third, the Wings finally wiped out Toronto’s lead when Jiri Hudler beat Gustavsson to make it 3-3, but two and a half minutes later, Lupul picked off Zetterberg’s flubbed clearing attempt and put his 19th of the season past a sprawling Howard.
The game was the continuation of a dream season for Lupul, who is only nine away from a career high in goals and sits tied for fourth in NHL scoring with 47 points at the halfway mark.
“Sometimes you’ve got to give the opposition credit,” Lupul said. “They hemmed us in our zone and they didn’t turn the puck over at all. It was pretty frustrating. But we found a way. It’s just nice to beat a really good team playing at the top of their game.”
Afterwards, Babcock was singing a different tune, saying despite what the shot clock read, the Wings had deserved their fate.
“That was un-Red Wing-like,” Babcock said. “I thought we got real porous there for a period of time in the first period, gave up too many chances that we ended up chasing the game.
“We dominated tons of tonight’s game and you could leave hear saying ‘Geez, we played real good.’ Well, no we didn’t. We gave up too many chances.”
Wilson credited his team for not folding after they let Detroit back in the game, despite the fact the Wings had the puck “80 per cent of the time” in the Leafs zone.
“But we got the job done,” Wilson said of the third period. “I thought we did a pretty good job keeping them on the outside.
“They had some scary moments – that one chance with about 40 seconds to go made my heart stop – but the Monster came up big. In a situation like this, you need to have your goalie have a great game. He should have been the first star, to be honest with you.”
Phaneuf plays through injury
Phaneuf’s face certainly got a lot of attention in the lead-up to the game, with teammate Luke Schenn saying the Leafs captain looked a bit like Batman villain Two-Face due to his wound, but it hardly seemed to affect his game.
Phaneuf’s early power play goal – a rocket from the point after a poor clear by the Wings – gives him 28 points on the year, fifth best among NHL defencemen.
“I was lucky to be able to play,” Phaneuf said. “I was very fortunate nothing was broken. It’s always scary when something like that happens, but once I knew nothing was broken, I knew I was going to play.”
Phaneuf added that it’s been difficult off the ice with the injury, as he can’t eat properly due to the swelling making his left cheek much larger than normal.
“I’ve been able to get some food in there,” he said. “I’ve just been eating soft stuff. I feel fine. I’m fortunate that nothing worse came out of it.”
Two other Leafs were back in their first games in a while, with Mike Komisarek logging 22 minutes after returning from a broken arm and Mike Brown playing 12 after recovering from back surgery.
Komisarek and Brown had missed 21 and 22 games, respectively.
After an ugly 4-6-3 December, the Leafs are on now a bit of a run, riding Gustavsson back to seventh in the Eastern Conference and within a point of New Jersey and Ottawa in fifth spot.
The standings, however, remain ridiculously tight, something Wilson said he expects to continue right up until the Leafs final three games in April.
“This is going to be a dogfight right to the end,” Wilson said. “Teams are going to be sliding two or three places up, two or three places every night. So it’s going to be fun.”
Next week, the Leafs have a home-and-home series with the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday and Friday, before finishing a back-to-back on Saturday back at the Air Canada Centre against the New York Rangers.
“We want to keep building on the games that we’ve played here in the new year,” Phaneuf said.