TORONTO – Randy Carlyle was chuckling again, which was a pretty good sign that some of the clouds hovering over the Toronto Maple Leafs had finally parted.
There was also the long-forgotten sound of Miley Cyrus blasting from the home dressing room at Air Canada Centre – to say nothing of two badly needed points added to the standings. But even as the Leafs took a few moments to savour the end of a long losing streak, there wasn’t exactly the wave of relief you might have expected.
"You hope that now you can build on it, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves because we didn’t paint a Mona Lisa here tonight," Carlyle said after Tuesday’s 3-2 win over the Calgary Flames.
"Our main focus was to win one," added Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier. "Now we’ve got to get back on track."
Roughly translated: About the only thing Toronto seemed to think it accomplished here was earning the right to quit hearing questions about the eight straight regulation losses it endured from March 16 through the end of the month.
They had just encountered a relaxed Flames team that has managed to punch outside of its weight class since the end of the Olympics because of a willingness to work. Calgary also displayed plenty of patience on Tuesday night and hung around right until the final buzzer – getting denied by Bernier on a couple late scoring chances.
"I think we finally found a way to have a lead," Carlyle said. "We still found a way to make it exciting though. The entertainment value was a little too high for coaches."
Toronto’s situation remains fairly dire, although neither Columbus nor Washington appears ready to run away with the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Jackets are currently in possession of that – one point up on the Leafs with two games in hand.
In other words, there is still a chance, roughly nine percent of one if you’re willing to put any stock in the algorithms.
The measured (muted?) reaction from the Leafs fell roughly in line with that math. There was some encouragement in the form of rare goals from Jay McClement (No. 4) and David Clarkson (No. 5), plus the David Bolland shot that caromed in off the foot of Flames defenceman T.J. Brodie.
There may have been a little karma in that one, a few of the players reasoned, as some kind of payback for the bounces that went the other way during the franchise’s worst losing run in 29 years.
"We did a lot of good things tonight – we battled as a team," Clarkson said. "I think for us if we’re good in our zone the rest will take care of itself. Tonight we found a way to do that."
That is one area where the team believes it has made some small improvements recently after having held opponents to less than 30 shots in four of the last five outings. Some of that, no doubt, can be attributed to the fact it has trailed so often during those games and therefore been forced to push the pace offensively while the other team clamped down.
Either way, it is an improvement on the league-worst 35.8 shots against it has averaged through 77 games this season.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign of all is that the air has finally been cleared with a victory. That will allow the Toronto players to enter Thursday’s game against Boston – currently the NHL’s best team – with a fresh perspective and renewed focus.
"There’s a lot of negative energy when you go through a (losing) streak like that," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said.
The team’s recent struggles have made big headlines in Toronto, with everything from Carlyle’s job security to Phaneuf’s leadership to Phil Kessel’s big-game performances being discussed ad nauseam on talk radio and social media. It’s been impossible to escape.
Kessel had once looked like a lock to eclipse his career-best of 82 points, but has seen his production stall of late. He now needs five points over the final five games to match that total. There is a strong belief that he is nursing a right foot injury, a situation that wasn’t made any better on Tuesday thanks to some bad luck.
"He only got hit it on three times tonight," Carlyle said, with a laugh. "It’s like it `Here it is, hit me.’ He had the sign on his foot obviously."
The star winger returned to the Leafs bench after the last one and smashed his custom-designed Easton S19 stick to pieces. Part of the shrapnel may have grazed assistant coach Scott Gordon, who jumped out of the way.
Carlyle was a little further down the way and didn’t blink.
"I don’t react to those things because usually it becomes a huge negative because that’s when confrontation starts in those things," he said. "I just step away."
When everything was said and done on Tuesday night, the entire Leafs team was able to take a step back and enjoy a deep breath. There was no jubilation or excitement but the mood was noticeably better than it had been after the morning skate.
"Well it beats losing, that’s for sure," said defenceman Cody Franson, and it was hard to quibble with him about that.