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James van Riemsdyk is congratulated by teammates after his first-period goal against the Detroit Red Wingson Tuesday. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
James van Riemsdyk is congratulated by teammates after his first-period goal against the Detroit Red Wingson Tuesday. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Dominant early, Maple Leafs stumble, but hang on to beat Red Wings Add to ...

Maybe the Toronto Maple Leafs are forging a new identity, one much different than talented, flashy young team on the rise.

Maybe they will eventually be known as a team that never makes it easy on themselves. It’s certainly appearing that way, as the Leafs began their most important segment of the season, the drive to climb back into a playoff spot over the last 18 games of the NHL’s regular season, by almost fumbling away a two-goal lead Tuesday night.

But after some hair-raising moments late in the third period, the Leafs managed to hang on to a 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings at Air Canada Centre. That broke a five-game winless slide, kept the Leafs bobbing around the second and last Eastern Conference wild-card spot and, more importantly, pulled them within two points of the third-place Boston Bruins in the Atlantic Division. Getting that third-place spot means the Leafs’ playoff prospects will be better than simply first-round fodder for the Washington Capitals as a wild-card team.

“There’s going to be a lot of one-goal games down the stretch so it’s nice to win that one,” said Leaf centre Tyler Bozak, who had his best game in quite a while with two assists and a 75-per-cent success rate in the faceoff circle.

The trouble is, the game never should have been that close, not one against the last-place team in the Atlantic Division. The Red Wings are a once-proud franchise that is about to break a streak of 25 consecutive years in the playoffs. Once the Leafs had a 3-0 lead on them in the second period they should have shut down the Wings the rest of the way.

Then again, the Leafs’ late follies did help improve their sorry record in one-goal games. Thanks to allowing the Wings two goals, the Leafs can now say they are 11-7-14 in one-goal games.

Over the first 40 minutes, it looked as if the Leafs solved all of their problems at once. Playing too loose in their own zone? They didn’t allow the Red Wings a shot in the second period until almost 16 minutes had passed.

Not enough pop from veterans such as James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak? Rookie sensation Mitch Marner, the right winger on their line, letting his game slide? Van Riemsdyk broke a 14-game scoring drought with his 20th goal of the season. That line produced the game’s first two goals with Bozak and Marner assisting on both of them.

“We played well, I thought, for most of the game,” van Riemsdyk said. “I’m happy with the chances I was getting.”

But then they turned back into the team that could only manage one point out of a possible six last week in three games in California because they couldn’t hold a lead and couldn’t play in their own zone. With 28 seconds left in the second period, no one thought to cover Detroit winger Gustav Nyquist in front of the net and he scored on the Red Wings’ fifth shot of the period. But that lesson wasn’t enough because the Leafs did it again 36 seconds into the third period. This time they watched Nyquist cruise into the slot alone and put a shot past goaltender Frederik Andersen.

And just like that, a 3-0 lead was down to 3-2 and all the old questions were back.

Way back in the first period, the Leafs broke out of the gate as though they still had head coach Mike Babcock’s words from the morning skate ringing in their ears. Actually, Babcock was talking to the usual crowd of reporters, but seven minutes into the game it was clear he must have said much the same thing to the players, probably repeatedly after their awful road trip last week.

“I think when you start the game you don’t know what shift is going to turn the game,” Babcock said. “Is that the first shift? I was watching TV last night and a couple teams were down 2-0 right away.

“So you spent your whole day, you had a nice meal, had a nice nap, did everything [to prepare] – how did you get down 2-0 five minutes into the game and you chased the game all night? You don’t know which shift it’s going to be. You don’t know which shift is going to turn the game, so be ready for your shift. Play one, come back, take a deep breath and a little drink of water and get ready for the next one.”

A little more than one minute into the game it seemed the Leafs took their coach to heart. The Bozak line had a monster shift, running all over the Detroit zone. Marner picked off a desperate clearing attempt up the middle and fed Bozak, who fired a shot at goaltender Petr Mrazek. The rebound bounced out to defenceman Alexey Marchenko, who scored his first goal of the season.

But the goal was more significant than that, as it was also Marchenko’s first game against his former team, the one that put him on waivers almost a month ago. Since being claimed by the Leafs and then working his way into the lineup for the past six games thanks to an injury to Connor Carrick, Marchenko appears to have nailed down a full-time spot in the lineup.

A little more than five minutes later, van Riemsdyk fought off a Red Wings defenceman in front of the net to score a power-play goal. Then, with the Leafs clamping down on the Red Wings, who appear certain to miss the playoffs after a remarkable 25 consecutive years in the postseason, Nazem Kadri scored his 27th goal of the season at 5:49 of the second period.

As the middle period wound down, it looked as if the Leafs were learning the lessons preached by Babcock, about keeping the gas pedal down, as the coach liked to say. Then, in the space of less than a minute at the worst possible times, the last minute of one period and the first minute of the next one, the Leafs let the Red Wings back into the game.

It was a reminder to anyone who gets too excited about this flashy young team – it still has a lot to learn.

“We had a little trouble at the end but guys made big plays, blocked shots,” van Riemsdyk said, perhaps just a bit defensively.

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