What a perfect way to cap off the first half of the 2011-12 NHL season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, riding a two-game winning streak at home, faced their toughest challenge of the year and came out a winner. It wasn’t easy, but that in itself made the victory that much more significant.
After building a 3-0 first period lead against the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings, the Maple Leafs got a little taste of Motown Manhandling. The never-say-die Red Wings owned the hosts in the second period, out-scoring Toronto 2-0 and out-shooting the Leafs 14-2 (the Leafs didn’t get their first shot on goal in the period until 13:24) and ultimately tied the game at 4:32 of the third period.
But the Leafs showed fantastic resilience. An unassisted goal by Toronto’s Joffrey Lupul at 7:10 followed by a gutsy defensive effort highlighted by a game-winning save by Jonas Gustavsson with 49 seconds remaining on Johan Franzen from point-blank in the slot ended the evening on a happy note for the home side.
It was a nail-biter, to be sure. To have blown a 3-0 lead and lost might have been devastating for a team desperate to make the playoffs. To blow the lead and still win simply confirms what the Maple Leafs believe: They are a legitimate playoff contender.
Asked about a 3-0 lead being the hardest for a team to defend, Lupul laughed and said, “I always think that’s funny. Probably a one-goal lead is the hardest to defend because (the other team) is so close. We knew they were going to come out in the second period and play the way they can play. They are a good team and have been for a long time. We didn’t do what we wanted in the second, by any means, but sometimes you have to give the opposition credit. They hemmed us in our zone and didn’t turn the puck over at all. It was pretty frustrating, but we found a way to win.”
Lupul, who now has 19 goals and is on pace for 38 (which is 10 more than his single-season high of 28) talked about the significance of beating a perennial Stanley Cup contender like the Red Wings.
“It’s just nice to beat a really good team playing at the top of their game,” Lupul said. “You know what you’re going to get when that team comes in. They’re going to play a puck-possession game. They’re going to keep the puck and not turn it over. A lot of their best players are strong defensively, too, so they are a tough team to play against. To get two points is big for us.”
The Leafs have played their last three games at home and will host the Buffalo Sabres Tuesday night before heading down the 401 for a rematch Friday night. Then it’s back to the ACC for five straight home games against the New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Minnesota Wild, Montreal Canadiens and New York Islanders.
Captain Dion Phaneuf played a strong game despite the fact the left side of his face was horribly swollen after taking a shot to the face Thursday against Winnipeg. It didn’t hinder his performance, though. Phaneuf scored his seventh goal of the season on a blistering shot from the point and played 23:56. He was proud of his team’s effort.
“We’re a group that definitely does not quit,” Phaneuf said. “We worked hard right until the end. The main thing we talked about in between periods was we wanted to go right back after them. We bent, but we didn’t break. I thought it was a real test for our group and we responded in the right way.”
Phaneuf likes the direction his team is going.
“We want to keep on building on the games we have played here in the New Year,” Phaneuf said. “We wanted to get our game back to where it needed to be and keep improving every night. I think we’re doing that. We’re getting better as a group and building as a group and we’re trying to build something here. Every night we want to get better. We want to learn from our wins and our losses. We’re moving in the right direction.”
The coach, Ron Wilson, said he wasn’t surprised the Red Wings got the game back to even after falling behind 3-0. It doesn’t matter what kind of lead you have over the Red Wings, you cannot let down your guard.
“It seemed that we were kind of waiting for that to happen and then we’d go from there and start playing again,” Wilson said. “They started to play better near the end of the first period and I told our team the way the Red Wings finished the first period, they’re going to be even better in the second and we have to be ready. In the second we were on our heels for most of the period and we turned a lot of pucks over. It was partly us, but it was a lot Detroit. You see what kind of a team they are when they play like that.
“That’s a team of 20 pickpockets over there. They should all be arrested. I don’t know what the law is in Ontario, but they steal pucks from you all the time. It’s a good team to watch play when you are our kind of team to see how the game should be played all the time. Every one of their guys is relentless.”
Gustavsson has wrestled the starter’s job away from James Reimer and was obviously thrilled to have been able to hold his team in the game when the Red Wings took control of the puck for most of the final 40 minutes.
“It felt like I got a pretty good workout tonight,” Gustavsson said with a laugh. “At least you are in the game. You are focused all the time and you stay warm. That is the positive side. I expected that kind of a game.”