Hope in short supply for Leafs fans despite win

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel (81) celebrates his goal against the Boston Bruins. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO — Hope is in such short supply among the folks that pay to attend Toronto Maple Leafs games that even a night as wild as this one felt … reserved?

The fans can’t be blamed, of course, not after a particularly dark decade of disappointment. Not after seeing so much indignity brought on by these very Boston Bruins.

History casts a shadow over gatherings like this one, although not exactly the kind imagined by those who dubbed this unusual 8 p.m. start a “rivalry night.”

If this is a rivalry, it’s an awfully one-sided one. The Bruins may have been handed a 6-1 defeat on Wednesday — “We stunk out the joint,” coach Claude Julien proclaimed afterwards — but they still left Air Canada Centre with an 8-3-3 record to show for the last 14 trips here.

Even the players inside the Maple Leafs dressing room seemed to be taking this particular 60 minutes in stride. There was certainly no talk of redemption or vindication. They didn't feel as if anything was proven.

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"It's a long season," cautioned James van Riemsdyk. "You don't read too much into one individual game at this point I don't think."

That attitude was worthy of just as much praise as a game that saw the Leafs chase Tuukka Rask and score three power-play goals. Right now there seems to be a refreshing amount of honesty about the process at a time when the team is seeing positive results in the win column.

Perhaps it's inevitable after the collapses that have mired seasons past. It might even be a sign of maturity.

Either way, there's no denying that the current 6-1-1 run has largely been fueled by a high-octane offence -- and that the one area where they saw real improvement against Boston was with the defensive side of the game.

"Tonight we wanted to be more focused on the defensive side and we were," goalie Jonathan Bernier said after making 25 saves. "We gave up one 2-on-1 in the third (period) and that's pretty much it. We were really good in the middle, we didn't give them much.

"That's how you're going to win games, especially down the stretch."

This game was also won on the ridiculous wrist shot of Phil Kessel -- he put two shots behind Rask that no Vezina Trophy winner would stop -- and strong special teams. The third line of Peter Holland, Leo Komarov and Mike Santorelli continued to control the puck and provided another goal.

The blue-line was solid.

Yet, for all of the good, there was a tacit acknowledgement that they've still got a long way to go before truly challenging Boston.

"I think we're improving as a squad," said Kessel. "I think we have to keep getting better each game and just keep going."

The Leafs still had the 4-1 loss to Boston from Oct. 25 on their minds when they arrived at the rink on Wednesday night. Most of the players had tried to forget it, according to van Riemsdyk, but the coaching staff made a point of reminding everyone how embarrassing that experience was.

As for the Bruins? Well, they may have been guilty of looking past this one to Thursday's visit to Montreal, where a real rivalry will be renewed at the Bell Centre.

Julien even mentioned at the morning skate that "I don't think tonight is a real emotional game" and saw his team prove him right. The Bruins mounted a push after a sluggish start, but were sunk by a three-goal outburst in the opening minutes of the second period. It was an unexpected turn of events, to be sure, but not necessarily a harbinger of things to come. With Pittsburgh next on the schedule, the Leafs can't exactly put things on cruise control.

"We don't bother getting too far ahead of ourselves," said Carlyle.

"We're a group that needs to continue to focus on some of the smaller things and details of the game and build off it.

"Sure, we feel good about ourselves right now, but who's coming on Friday?"

That attitude was reflected in the level of enthusiasm on display in the stands as the clock ticked down against the Bruins. Those who hadn't left early stood and cheered, but it was nothing crazy or particularly notable.

Everyone seemed pretty mindful that more important -- and telling -- acts lie ahead.