Brian Burke may not have been in the building Saturday night, but his presence was certainly felt on the ice.
Netminder Jean-Sebastien Giguere, acquired by Burke last Sunday in a three-player deal with the Anaheim Ducks, was stellar yet again, making 30 saves for his second straight shutout in two games as a Toronto Maple Leaf.
Winger Phil Kessel, added by Burke in September in a controversial trade, sparked the offence, scoring twice and adding an assist to give him five goals and eight points in his past four games.
And, in a season with so few inspired performances, the Leafs collectively turned in perhaps their best game of the season under trying circumstances, rolling over the red-hot Ottawa Senators 5-0 in a game that was really never in doubt.
The architect of a Toronto team that looks as though it may finally be turning a corner, however, was in Boston, grieving the loss of his 21-year-old son, Brendan, who was killed in a car accident Friday afternoon.
Despite the win, the mood from Leafs players and coach Ron Wilson was understandably far from celebratory after the game.
"It's been hard," Wilson said of the 24 hours since learning of Burke's death. "I've known Brendan almost since the day he was born and he was a special kid. It's just the worst thing that any parent can possibly imagine.
"It's been so hard, you're trying to prepare for a game… it's just horrific. I couldn't possibly imagine the grief you would feel."
Players echoed that sentiment.
"I think our goal here is to make sure Burkie and his family don't have to worry about us," said Giguere, who has known his GM for years dating back to their time with the Anaheim Ducks. "They have enough on their plate right now. It's hard enough as it is to lose somebody you love like this. I can't even imagine a kid."
There was a moment of silence at the Air Canada Centre before the game to honour Brendan Burke, who was the student manager of the college hockey team at Miami University (Ohio) and had planned to potentially follow his father into the NHL management ranks.
Relatively unknown up until last fall, the younger Burke revealed he was gay in a lengthy interview with ESPN in November that earned praise from around the hockey world. He was widely hailed as a pioneer in a sport that has never had an openly out athlete.
The Leafs players had said prior to the game they planned to try and win the game for their GM, a man Wilson said many of them hold in very high esteem.
"I'm just proud of the team that they didn't allow this to be a distraction, they really focused and we really wanted to win this for Brendan, for Brian and the whole Burke family," Wilson said.
"Everybody who works here, most of our players, they're here because of Brian and we didn't want to let him down. I know Brian texted in a few times to [assistant GM]Dave Nonis, he couldn't avoid that to see how we're doing, and I'm sure Dave responded that we couldn't have played a better game."
The sold-out crowd at the ACC seemed to sense the game may have had a higher purpose as well, and the Leafs - still last place in the Eastern Conference and well out of playoff contention after the win - delivered a show on the ice.
In addition to strong performances from Giguere and Kessel, sophomore defenceman Luke Schenn had a career night with two goals, an assist and a plus-4 rating in nearly 22 minutes ice time as his game continues to turn around after a slow start.
"We mentioned it before the game that we wanted to play for him," Schenn said. "To get the win was obviously great."
"To me the way Dion's come in and encouraged another youngster like Luke - all of a sudden you see Luke playing entirely different," Wilson said of another newcomer added by Burke last Sunday, defenceman Dion Phaneuf. "Dion's going up and down [the bench]encouraging guys, it's all positive, and a lot of other guys are jumping on that."
Riding that emotional wave, the Leafs put the game away early, jumping to a three-goal lead in the first period and getting two-goal nights from both Kessel and Schenn and a single from rookie Tyler Bozak.
Toronto opened the game's scoring with Sens defenceman Alexandre Picard in the box, as Phaneuf rang a point shot off the crossbar and Kessel picked up the lose puck in the slot to beat Ottawa netminder Brian Elliott early in the first.
The assist on the play was Phaneuf's first point in a Toronto uniform.
The reconvening of the Battle of Ontario also meant a chance for fisticuffs from the Leafs' Colton Orr and the Sens' Matt Carkner, who have now fought three times this season. After Carkner gave Orr an ugly black eye in December that forced him to wear a visor for a spell, Orr got the better of Saturday night's first-period bought - which, as has been the trend, was a short one.
Carkner took a few blows to the head and was dazed on the ice but only went to the trainer's room after some persuasion from teammates and officials. He returned to the game later in the period.
That was just one of many things that went right for Toronto on what was a charmed night. Late in the first, Schenn and Bozak picked up goals 28 seconds apart to put Ottawa's franchise-record 11-game win streak in doubt less than 20 minutes in.
Schenn's first goal, his third of the season, came with a bit of an odour, as a long, unscreened shot beat Elliott. Bozak was then credited with his second NHL goal after an attempted pass to linemate Alexei Ponikarovsky went off a defender and went in.
Kessel put the Leafs up by four with his second of the game and 20th of the season, going in alone against several defenders and rifling a long wrist shot past Elliott at the end of the second period.
Ottawa coach Cory Clouston yanked Elliott to start the third in favour of backup Pascal Leclaire, who made his first appearance since Jan. 12, but that failed to stop the bleeding as Schenn pulled a repeat of his first goal midway through the final period to cap the scoring.
Schenn now has four goals and eight points in his past 20 games and has seemingly bumped his sophomore slump.
Giguere, meanwhile, made 30 saves - although only a few were toughies - and was the game's first star in his second win in his new home. Elliott, praised by teammates before the game as a big reason for the team's run, took the loss for the first time in 10 starts after having won nine in a row.
"It doesn't even look like he's trying," Wilson said of Giguere. "He makes every save look easy. Which means your guys are thinking, oh we're doing everything right, which just breeds confidence."
With the loss, Ottawa missed a chance to move into first-place in the Northeast Division after some torrid play of late. The Senators remain only one point back of the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference, sitting comfortably in playoff position in fifth.
Notes: The St. Louis Blues also held a moment of silence for Brendan Burke prior to their Saturday night game against the Chicago Blackhawks. … Scouts from the Flyers, Sharks, Lightning, Red Wings, Hurricanes and Blackhawks were in attendance at the Air Canada Centre as next week's Olympic trade freeze looms … The last netminder to win his first two games with a team by shutout was Jeff Hackett with the Flyers in October of 2003.Report Typo/Error