BOSTON – They are the sessions that helped extend the Toronto Maple Leafs season.
When Clarke MacArthur was scratched for a pair of games in this opening round series against the Boston Bruins, he made good use of the extra time. It was during a few conversations with Leafs sports psychologist Dana Sinclair when the veteran forward freed himself of the mental baggage that had built up during a subpar season and adopted a fresh outlook.
The results came quicker than he could have imagined.
MacArthur scored in both games after drawing back into the lineup, including the game-winner in a must-win Game 5 at TD Garden on Friday night.
“It’s funny what confidence can do,” MacArthur told sportsnet.ca after the 2-1 win. “It’s cleared my mind a little more. It’s been nice.”
He was so confident that he actually called his own shot.
After taking the morning skate on Friday, MacArthur told sportsnet.ca that Game 5 was a situation that called for a hero and proclaimed “if I can get another shot tonight I think I’m going to get another one here.”
Good thing Randy Carlyle put him in the lineup.
Just like in Game 4 – when MacArthur scored despite playing less than nine minutes – he saw only intermittent shifts. All he needed was a small window of opportunity that came when Johnny Boychuk botched a pass early in the third period and saw the puck end up on his stick while he was in full flight.
MacArthur skated right around the Bruins defenceman and slid the puck past Tuukka Rask to give Toronto a much-needed two-goal cushion, especially since it would spend the next 18 minutes under a heavy siege.
Even though this was a night when Leafs goalie James Reimer was rightly named the first star (he made 43 saves, many of them show-stoppers), the players were all quick to give MacArthur his due as well.
He hadn’t just told this reporter he was going to score – “He told me too,” captain Dion Phaneuf said – and there seemed to be an emotional lift that came with seeing him making good on that prediction.
“I’m really happy for him to be rewarded,” Phaneuf said. “He worked hard, he stayed positive and he’s just a real good player.”
MacArthur has enjoyed his best NHL seasons since signing in Toronto as a free agent in 2010, but found himself a little further down the depth chart during this lockout-shortened campaign. He referred to it as being stuck in the grey zone – often as a third-line winger – and has admitted to struggling with his confidence as a result.
He sat down with Sinclair for a lengthy chat prior to practice at Boston University last week and began working towards becoming the best player he can be.
“It’s all about just focusing on certain things before games and not the whole big picture,” MacArthur said. “Do what you do best – the two or three things – and usually the rest takes care of itself.
“I’ve been dialed in towards that.”
With the Leafs now heading home for another must-win game on Sunday night, every player on the roster would be wise to follow suit.
There is clearly a belief growing among this group.
A year ago, do you think any of them would have thought they could come into this building – the site of so many lopsided defeats – and win a game to prolong their season?
The answer is a big fat no.
Everything started to change during a key home-and-home set with the Bruins in late March. Not only did the Leafs take the opener at Air Canada Centre, but they earned a point with a shootout loss in the return game here at TD Garden.
“For the better part of two or three years they’ve been pounding us,” Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul said. “Those two games were pretty hard-fought games by both teams and, I felt, real even games. It gave us a little more confidence that if we did meet them in the playoffs, we could play with them and be competitive.”
They were all that and more in Game 5.
Toronto came out firing on all cylinders during an impressive first period that saw them control play and build a 19-8 shots advantage. They eventually earned the first goal when Tyler Bozak won a footrace with Andrew Ference while short-handed and beat Rask on a breakaway 11:27 into the second period.
MacArthur extended that lead and the Leafs hung on for dear life after Zdeno Chara got the home team on the scoreboard.
It was an incomplete game for the Bruins. After spending a day and a half not taking anything for granted with a stranglehold on the series, they lacked the fire and execution to finish it off.
“This is something we have to take the blame for; it’s of our own doing,” Boston coach Claude Julien said. “They were a desperate team. They showed it at the beginning of the game and we were down 2-0 and all of a sudden we became the desperate team.”
Added Bruins winger Brad Marchand: “Maybe we thought it was going to be a little bit easier than it was going to be.”
There will almost certainly be a better Bruins team on the ice in Game 6 at the ACC.
“I’m sure that we’ve poked the Bruins,” Carlyle said.
For Toronto to extend its season once again, it will take more big performances from stars like Reimer and the lesser lights like MacArthur. Both of those players arguably had their best games of the season on Friday.
It was an amazing toe save on Patrice Bergeron by Reimer that helped set the tone in the first period of Game 5.
However, he remained even-keel while speaking to reporters afterwards.
“We obviously believe in each other and what we can accomplish as a team, but I don’t think we’re ahead of ourselves,” Reimer said. “We’ve still got a long road ahead of us.”
At least they found a way to take an important first step.
As it turns out, one of the keys to victory came from a little shot of confidence.
“This is when everyone has to rally together,” Lupul said before Game 5. “If we get the series back in Toronto, who knows what’s going to happen?”
Well, we’re about to find out.