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Carlyle’s line-shuffling works as Leafs bounce back to douse Lightning

Phil Kessel of the Maple Leafs stickhandles around Tampa Bay’s Tyler Johnson in Tampa on Thursday night.

Chris O'Meara/AP

Typically when a team suffers a particularly ugly loss, the advice from the coach is simple.

Forget about it. Trash it. Move on.

But after the Toronto Maple Leafs laid an egg earlier this week against the Florida Panthers, Randy Carlyle wasn't having any of that on Thursday morning. He wanted his troops to remember how bad they'd been and learn from it.

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And never do it again.

"I think we're going to dwell a little bit on what happened in Sunrise," Carlyle said of that 4-1 loss, which included a first period where Toronto was outshot 19-4 by one of the worst teams in the league. "I don't think we're just going to be able to forget that."

For the first half of the first period that night, it looked like his message had fallen on deaf ears.

The Leafs were again badly outshot early on – 8-1 at one point – and hopeless in their own end, allowing the Tampa Bay Lightning to roll into their zone again and again to the disappointment of the thousands of snowbird fans in attendance.

But after that 10 minutes of haplessness, it was as if a switch was flipped, and the Leafs team that had gone 9-1-1 heading into that Panthers debacle took the ice.

And they handily won.

Toronto downed the Lightning 4-1 on Thursday in impressive fashion, putting in one of their best rebound efforts of the season and showing a whole lot more jump than two nights earlier on the other side of the state.

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They won physical battles. They won puck battles. And they got contributions from just about everyone, even if netminder Jonathan Bernier was again the first star in making 33 saves.

"We needed a response from our effort the other night," Carlyle said. "And we got it tonight."

"We came out a little slow, but we stuck to it," said defenceman Tim Gleason, whose face suffered several cuts in a late-game scrum after Lightning forward JT Brown ran into Bernier. "It's two points."

Part of the credit for the win went to some really interesting lineup fiddling by Carlyle. For starters, he dressed seven defencemen – putting former Bolts d-man Paul Ranger back in for the first time in ages – and benched Colton Orr and Jerred Smithson.

Playing centre for one of the only times in his NHL career was Nikolai Kulemin, who responded with a solid game that included a nifty assist on Mason Raymond's breakaway goal to open the scoring.

Having only 11 forwards hardly hurt, either, as Carlyle has so seldom used his fourth line that it merely allowed him to mix and match and get extra shifts for players like Phil Kessel, who logged a team-high 16 minutes through the first 40 and looked dangerous on a lot of them.

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It was a refreshing switch up overall for the Leafs, who have too often have stayed locked in with the same line combinations when they've struggled.

"Obviously it's a little bit of a risk, putting him there because he hasn't played there for a long time," Carlyle said of moving Kulemin to the middle, where he looked relatively comfortable and logged 17 minutes. "But I talked to him about it this morning, and he felt he could do the job."

So, after an uncomfortable first 10 minutes, it was Toronto that started and continued to carry the play, peppering 6-foot-7 Lightning man mountain Ben Bishop with plenty of chances until Raymond finally broke through 28 minutes in.

The luxury box filled with the fathers of the team then erupted in cheers, with Terry Raymond raising his arms in a bigger celebration than even his son on the ice.

After the game, the hallway outside the dressing room was full of exuberant dads, including Kevin Gleason, who had been on more than a few of these father-son excursions and never had any reason to celebrate.

"Long story short, my Dad's been on about seven or eight of these and we'd yet to win one until tonight," the younger Gleason said. "So I'm going to have a beer with my Dad on the plane."

Late in the game, Toronto got a break when Bishop left the Tampa net to start the third with an undisclosed upper-body injury, which threw AHLer Cedric Desjardins to the wolves (i.e. the Leafs forwards) and they quickly capitalized.

Jay McClement did the honours there, scoring for just the third time this season, with a little highlight reel move on the doorstep of the crease for a 2-0 lead with 18 minutes to play.

James van Riemsdyk then swatted a rebound past Desjardins to essentially put the game away six minutes later, and Tyler Bozak closed out the scoring with an empty-netter.

But it was the goals from the third and fourth line to make it 2-0 that really resonated, as the Leafs have struggled to generate much from their bottom six all season. Of late, however, Toronto has been one of the league's most potent offensive teams, scoring 48 goals in 13 games as part of a 10-2-1 stretch.

McClement's goal was the most surprising contribution, and it earned him some good-natured ribbing from his teammates given it resembled the famed Peter Forsberg shootout move with the way his backhand shot trickled into the net.

"A lot of guys didn't think I had it in my tool box," McClement said. "The boys were giving it to me a little bit – I surprised a lot of them."

"We're going to need offence from everybody," Carlyle said. "And tonight was one of those nights that we got a contribution from a lot of different people in our lineup."

With only one game remaining until the Olympic break, the Leafs climbed to within one point of the Lightning, who they have been chasing most of the season in an Atlantic Division race that is finally starting to heat up.

Toronto now only needs to beat the flailing Vancouver Canucks – who have just four wins in their last 19 games – to cruise into the hiatus on a real high. At that point, the Leafs would have won 11 of 14 and, with only three Olympians, their high end players may well be more rested than their competition come March.

Hard to believe, given how low they were a month ago.

"These games are really important for us," Bernier said. "We want to finish strong before the break and get as many points as possible. We had a good game, but we've got to move on."

Follow me on Twitter: @mirtle

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