BOSTON — This was Randy Carlyle as the mad scientist.
Or maybe the master tactician.
In the opening minutes of Game 2 it was difficult to tell what the Toronto Maple Leafs coach was up to. Forwards jumped over the boards in combinations not seen all year. Phil Kessel took some shifts on the left side.
It was a controlled chaos that must have looked even stranger from the Boston Bruins bench than it did from high above the TD Garden ice.
The goal was to get Kessel away from his six-foot-nine black and gold shadow, Zdeno Chara, and it worked it to a tee during Saturday’s 4-2 victory. All of the shuffling bought Kessel four minutes of even-strength ice time away from Chara and it took him just 10 seconds of that to change the game.
That was the Leafs winger jumping on the ice at roughly the same time Chara skated off following the opening shift of the third period. Soon he darted behind Dennis Seidenberg and took a home run pass from Nazem Kadri before beating Tuukka Rask through the five-hole to make it 3-1.
“That’s a huge goal there,” said Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul. “For him it’s big. They’re putting a lot of attention towards Phil and shutting him down, so things aren’t going to be easy for him this series.
“For him to contribute a huge goal like that is big for us.”
All you needed to know about what that goal meant to the quiet Leafs winger could be seen in the look of pure joy on his face as he skated back to the bench to be congratulated by teammates. They were even more excited.
“I think I celebrated harder than he did on the bench,” said winger Matt Frattin.
It was Kessel’s first goal at even strength in 24 games against his former team and arguably the most important for this franchise in a decade.
This time it was Leafs fans shouting: “Thank you, Kessel!”
While some around the team had quietly grumbled about having a two-day break following a disappointing loss in Game 1, it’s clear that Carlyle and his coaching staff made the most of the extra time off.
They communicated the line shuffling game plan to the players during two days of practice at Boston University and made sure everyone was ready to execute when the puck dropped. With all of the extra in-game juggling — Kessel and Frattin frequently alternated between units — it was important for everyone to be engaged during the game.
“You’ve just got to really stay ready on the bench for those situations,” said winger James van Riemsdyk. “God forbid you take a too many men penalty. Everyone was ready and we were focused and dialed into the game so that was huge.”
Carlyle should also be commended for making four key lineup changes in an effort to get more out of his group.
Ryan Hamilton, in particular, made a noticeable impact as a new addition to the fourth line. The 28-year-old managed an impressive three hits, three shots and a blocked shot in less than nine minutes of ice time.
He also smartly made a between-the-legs pass to Kadri before Kessel was sent in alone and earned his first NHL playoff point with the assist.
“The one thing about Ryan Hamilton is that he’s going to do everything that he has in his power to make an impression and do his job,” said Carlyle. “He’s a great example of (what it takes to be) a professional for our young players.”
Two of the other additions also made big plays in Game 2.
It was a Jake Gardiner point shot that found its way through a sea of bodies to the net, where Lupul shoveled home the rebound at 5:18 of the second period to tie the score 1-1.
Then Frattin fought off Seidenberg and sent the puck in front to Lupul, who roofed a backhander at 11:56 to give the Leafs the lead for good.
What we have now is a series.
The shift to Air Canada Centre for Game 3 on Monday will give Carlyle the last line change, which means the ball is now squarely in Claude Julien’s court to make adjustments. The Bruins coach will certainly be happy to have Andrew Ference back from suspension.
For the Leafs, it will be important to continue getting contributions from everyone.
Lupul, van Riemsdyk and Kessel are among the team’s top forwards and each of them scored big goals on Saturday night. James Reimer was also solid with 39 saves for his first career playoff victory.
The coaching matchup will also play a big role in the games and you can count on Carlyle to continue working at finding some free space for Kessel. That was the story of Game 2.
“As far as keeping him away (from Chara), well some things we did did work for a while but they always have home ice and the last change,” said Carlyle. “They’re pretty good at getting Chara on and off the ice. They’ve done this before.
“Really this is the first time that we’ve really went as hard at that tonight as per se.”
While much has been made about the lack of experience for the Leafs, one area where that isn’t an issue is behind the bench.
Carlyle appeared in 69 post-season games as a NHL player and guided the Anaheim Ducks to the playoffs on five occasions as a head coach. He also got his name engraved on the Stanley Cup with the Ducks in 2007 — making him one of the few members of the organization with a championship ring.
That goes a long way with his current players.
“I think anyone who follows the game knows when a coach wins a Stanley Cup, how hard that is to do,” said van Riemsdyk. “He has that respect from us. We know that he’s taken a team there and he’s been there, done that.
“We have a lot of trust in him.”
On this night, it clearly paid off.