The penalty kill was perfect, their goalie was good enough and the goals were coming fast and furious.
And for the Toronto Maple Leafs, 2012 started with a much-needed two points.
The Leafs entered Tuesday’s 7-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in their worst funk of the season, coming off a winless three-game road trip and with just four wins in their last 14 games.
It was a stretch that saw them sink right out of playoff position in the Eastern Conference – and within striking distance for the few lowly teams trying to work their way up.
Luckily Toronto ran into one member of that group that showed all of its warts on this night, as Tampa’s alarming struggles in goal, thin defence and out-of-sorts power play were on display almost right from the start.
The shootout started quickly, too, with three in the opening nine minutes and then five more all bunched together in the final eight minutes of the second period as Lightning starter Mathieu Garon was chased from the goal.
Backup Dwayne Roloson didn’t fare much better, however, allowing three goals in 20 minutes of work as part of a continuation of a nightmare season for the 42-year-old who played Tampa’s hero late last season.
Doing the bulk of the damage offensively for Toronto was its top line, as Joffrey Lupul racked up four points and Phil Kessel netted his 22nd of the season to close the game’s scoring.
That trio showed both their good and bad sides early on, as they were on the ice for two goals for and two against to open the game.
In the end, however, it was the Leafs depth that became the difference, with seven different players finding the back of the net – including fourth-liners Darryl Boyce and Matt Frattin adding the winning and insurance goals late in the second.
"I thought we did a real good job all the way through for 60 minutes," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said. "We didn't give up a whole lot and when we did our goalie played really well and key guys stepped up at key times."
PK picks it up
An emergency meeting between the Leafs coaching staff and all seven defencemen at Monday’s practice produced immediate results on the penalty kill, as Toronto was far more aggressive when down a man Tuesday and finished the game 5-for-5.
That is a dramatic improvement over December, where the Leafs allowed 19 goals while shorthanded for a 64-per-cent kill rate, dropping them to an unspeakably bad 72.3 per cent on the year.
That it came against the 24th-ranked Lightning power play merits a mention, but five kills is five kills, improving Toronto all the way to 73.2 per cent.
Have to start somewhere.
“It felt great,” defenceman Carl Gunnarsson said. “We had a lot of confidence and no issues. Every time we got a power play, we knew we could go out and kill it.”
"Our guys did a great job tonight," Lupul said. "Blocking shots, our goalie made big saves, we were just a little more assertive on our clears ... so that's good. Hopefully our guys can build off that."
Boyce’s big night
The PK’s success came in part due to some much needed energy from Boyce, who once again proved a pest and added his first goal of the season to give Leafs a 4-3 lead in the second period.
Boyce was playing in only his sixth game of the season since his recall from the minors, but he certainly looked Tuesday like someone who badly wanted to stay in the NHL.
“It’s contagious when someone like that does those little things,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “The blocked shot on the 5-on-3 was huge ... That’s what we haven’t been getting a lot of on our PK.”
In addition to solid work while shorthanded, he also came to Phaneuf’s rescue when Lighting checker Steve Downie took a few liberties on the Leafs captain in front of the Leafs net.
Boyce took a 10-minute misconduct and a minor penalty on the play, but Downie was given the extra minor to give him an even 20 minutes in PIMs on the night.
"I think everyone knows his reputation around the league," Boyce said. "He tries to get under guys' skin. A tradeoff with him and Dion going to the box isn't beneficial to our team so I just tried to step in and do what I could."
Gustavsson wins again
Say what you will about Jonas Gustavsson often tumultuous tenure in Toronto, but of late anyway, the man known as the Monster has been finding ways to win games.
Tuesday’s victory wasn’t the prettiest for the men in masks, but Gustavsson still earned his 10th win on the season – tops among Leafs netminders – and sixth in his last eight starts.
With No. 1 James Reimer struggling in his return from a concussion, expect the Leafs to split the duties the next couple of weeks as they play eight of their next nine games at home.
What changed on the PK?
Gunnarsson broke down what the Leafs did differently on Tuesday night in order to have success shorthanded:
- Preparing to be on the other team in the neutral zone: "We did a good job on their breakout, just once they entered the zone, we were aggressive right away."
- Getting in the lane when shots were attempted: "When they set it up, we blocked shots and we didn't let passes go through the crease for a back door tap in."
- The forwards came way down low to help the defence out: "When we put pressure on, everyone's got to do it. All four of us. That was a big part tonight."