The Toronto Maple Leafs did not take a great leap forward with their latest outing but it was just enough for a win.
A consistent effort for 60 minutes remains out of their grasp, and the Maple Leafs had to rely on a superb game from goaltender James Reimer, but there was more of a dedication to a team game than there was in their previous six outings, which resulted in five losses. They had to white-knuckle their way through overtime and a shootout, but the Leafs managed a 2-1 win Thursday that should soften the white noise that surrounded them for the last couple of weeks.
Reimer, who raised some eyebrows Tuesday when he called out some of his teammates for not working consistently after a 3-1 loss to the Florida Panthers, was much happier. He was given the second consecutive start because fellow goalie Jonathan Bernier is nursing an undisclosed injury and was not quite 100-per-cent.
"Tonight was just a good, solid team effort," he said. "I'm really proud of the way the guys played. We all make mistakes. Sometimes we don't show up when we want to. You're judged by how you respond. Everyone showed up tonight, everyone bought in."
Still, the Leafs needed Reimer when they stood still in their own end again after a show of fore-checking and solid defensive play through two periods. They also needed the NHL's replay officials, who confirmed referee Paul Devorski's ruling of a goal on James van Riemsdyk's shootout attempt. That plus Joffrey Lupul's shootout goal gave the Leafs the winning edge.
Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith covered van Riemsdyk's shootout attempt with his pad but slid back into his net and over the goal line. It was clear the puck was probably over the line but with Smith's pad covering it, there was no clear view of it on the replays. But since Devorski called it a goal originally, he could not be overruled by the replay judges.
"I didn't see it, but from what everyone says in there with the replays, none of them showed it had gone in," Smith said. "I guess there was only one guy in this whole building that saw it go in, and that was [Devorski]. I guess you've got to respect his call.
"The confusing thing after was like, he came and whispered it in my ear like, 'It's a goal,' and he didn't really give a signal that it was. He made the call, he said he saw it go in. It's unfortunate, but that's the way it goes."
Reverting to their passive ways in their own end in the last 20 minutes caught up to the Leafs at 15:08. They let the Coyotes get the puck behind the net and Martin Hanzal scored on a wraparound shot to tie the score that Leafs goaltender James Reimer should have stopped. It also might have helped if Leaf forward David Clarkson made an attempt to check Hanzal.
After a brain-storming session with head coach Randy Carlyle in the morning about solutions to the Leafs' malaise, they were much better against the Coyotes than they were two nights earlier in losing to the Florida Panthers. The game itself wasn't much better, the typically dull affair favoured by the Coyotes, who are sensibly dedicated to grinding, defensive hockey under head coach Dave Tippett.
Carlyle said he wanted his team to tune up its game in four areas: help the penalty killers by taking few penalties, be more aggressive on the fore-check, do the same in the defensive zone and get better on faceoffs. Well, given how bad the Leafs were playing, three out of four wasn't bad.
The Leafs did limit themselves to two minor penalties and their play in their own end was somewhat better. But their faceoff work remains pathetic. By the end of the game, the Leafs won a mere 21 of 53 draws.
However, there was a big improvement in the Leafs' fore-checking, especially in the first 30 minutes. The Leafs went into the Coyotes' zone hard, worked to get the puck back and went to the net. They even cycled the puck around the boards at times.
There was little of the fancy stickwork, what former Leafs head coach Pat Quinn used to sneer was "trying to pass the puck into the net," that perturbed Carlyle. It was the sort of game left winger Joffrey Lupul said the Leafs needed to play.
"It was a hard-fought game both ways," Lupul said. "There were some things we can do better and some things [the Coyotes] can do better. But it was a big two points.
"We'll take the positives, come to the rink tomorrow and feel better about ourselves."
The improved fore-checking game resulted in the Leafs' goal late in the first period, one produced by the fourth line. It did a masterful job of banging bodies around in the Phoenix zone until the puck wound up at the point and winger Troy Bodie was all by himself in front of the net. Franson pounded a shot from the point and Bodie had lots of time to corral the rebound and backhand it over Smith.
The odd thing was that this did not result in any rewards for Bodie. He had perhaps one shift for the rest of the game after the goal, finishing with three shifts and two minutes, 28 seconds of ice time as Carlyle went to his top three lines in the search for offence.
"We just made the decision to stick with the lines we had," Carlyle said.
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