Nazem Kadri and the Toronto Maple Leafs like to think of the first period as the most important 20 minutes of the game.
That worked out well against the Philadelphia Flyers, though making the third period their worst almost didn’t. The Leafs blew two leads after the second intermission but managed to rebound to beat the Flyers 4-3 in overtime Saturday night at Air Canada Centre.
“It feels good,” game-winning goal-scorer Joffrey Lupul said of bouncing back. “We don’t want to make a habit of blowing third-period leads. Things are going to happen, other teams are going to make plays and we stuck with it.
“There was a good feeling on our bench going into overtime. It seemed like everyone had their composure and were calm and we got the result we needed.”
The result was the Leafs’ second straight overtime victory but also the fourth game in five since the Olympic break that involved blowing at least one third-period lead. Toronto had a two-goal lead 3:38 into the first by virtue of goals by Jake Gardiner and Kadri, but that slipped away after Flyers defenceman Kimmo Timonen scored twice.
Mason Raymond’s go-ahead goal later in the third was then erased when Braydon Coburn beat Jonathan Bernier with plenty of traffic in front. That was the sixth time the Leafs had coughed up a lead in the final period of regulation in the past five games.
Gardiner called it “a little bit of a collapse defensively,” and it was hard for his teammates to disagree given this disturbing trend.
“Obviously that’s a little bit of a concern, but that’s not something that’s drawing our complete attention,” Kadri said. “Obviously our D-zone could be a little tighter, but that’s something we’ve got to work on.”
With 17 games left in the regular season, there’s some time to go to work, but most importantly, Leafs players took out of Saturday night the satisfaction of not caving in and managing to pick up two valuable points. Toronto (34-23-8) now has 76 points, two up on the Tampa Bay Lightning for the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division.
“That’s really what we focus on: we show character to stay in games,” Kadri said. “Even though it’s a little bit deflating at times giving up a couple goal-leads in the third period, especially late to force overtime, we stay positive and came out with the right outcome.”
Coach Randy Carlyle had his issues with the Leafs’ performance, like when he thought players stopped skating at the end of the second period and how several stayed on the ice for shifts that were too long for his liking.
But he, too, took a positive out of regrouping after Coburn tied the score again at the 17:28 mark of the third.
“A lot of times when the game gets away from you, your team goes and continues to spiral,” Carlyle said. “Well we didn’t spiral, in my mind. Maybe if I re-watch it again I’ll have a different opinion, but it didn’t seem like we were under siege in the third.”
At the start, the Leafs had the Flyers (33-24-7) under siege. The goals by Gardiner and Kadri came on Toronto’s first four shots against Steve Mason, who looked shaky for at least the first handful of minutes.
From Coburn’s perspective, it wasn’t just Mason, who stopped 32 of the 36 shots he faced.
“We had an awful start,” he said. “We can’t start hockey that way.”
While Leafs winger Troy Bodie, who helped set up Gardiner’s goal as part of his two-assist night, noticed a jump from those two early goals, it put Philadelphia in a major hole that it had to climb out of the rest of the game.
“The first 10 minutes of the game, we didn’t play that good and they were able to score two goals, but I think the next 50-54 minutes, we were skating and working and creating chances,” said Timonen, who scored his first career goals against the Leafs in his 30th game against them. “We were a better team after that first 10 minutes.”
Bernier made several memorable saves among his 28 to keep the Flyers from breaking through until the third period.
And Mason bounced back to stop 29 consecutive shots between Kadri’s goal in the first and Raymond’s in the third.
“He held us in there,” Flyers coach Craig Berube said. “I thought he did a real good job, made some big saves. They’re a good offensive team, they make plays and he came up big.”
What usually makes the Leafs such a good offensive team is big contributions from James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel. That top line was kept off the score sheet Saturday night, but goals from Gardiner, Lupul, Raymond and Kadri got Toronto two points and could portend good things moving forward.
“I think that’s what is going to be a key to our success as the season goes on,” Lupul said. “As good as our first line has been, it would be asking a lot for them to sustain the pace they’ve had these past 10, 15 games. We’re going to have to step up and we’re getting opportunities. Tonight some of them went in for us.”
The Leafs’ biggest question mark going into a five-game road trip that starts Monday in Anaheim is how to stop other teams from putting the puck in the net so much, especially while leading in the third period. Lupul credited the Flyers for being a desperate opponent, while also considering it could be partially because of inexperience on the part of the Leafs.
“We’d like to do a little better job defending or actually staying on the offence, but sometimes the other team is going to make some plays, too,” he said. “We would’ve loved to hang on and not need overtime.”
It was in overtime that Lupul was able to come through as the hero, scoring on a tic-tac-toe passing play that started with Carl Gunnarsson and Dion Phaneuf.
“We finished strong and ‘Neuf and Lupes made a great play on the last goal,” Gardiner said.
Lupul’s 19th goal of the season managed to at least temporarily shift this problem into the background. Or perhaps it won’t become a real issue until the Leafs lose one of these games in regulation, as they improved to 24-1-2 when leading after two.
“I don’t think we want to keep that path going,” Gardiner said. “They go both ways sometimes, and tonight we got it.
NOTES — Winger David Clarkson was scratched for the Maple Leafs after a pulled muscle from Friday’s practice continued to bother him. Defenceman Paul Ranger was a healthy scratch as Frazer McLaren was called up so the Leafs could dress 12 forwards. ... The Leafs honoured 19 gold- and silver-medal-winning Canadian Olympians prior to the game, including five players from the women’s hockey team. ... Steve Downie was scratched for the Flyers because of the flu. Ex-Leafs forward Jay Rosehill took his place, making his biggest impact on the game by fighting McLaren in the second period.