BOSTON – The barrage lasted for nearly all of the final four minutes. It was 223 wild seconds, to be exact, from when the last faceoff was contested at TD Garden on Tuesday night until the horn sounded at the end of regulation.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, it felt like an eternity.
Yet lost in the flying bodies and blatant non-penalty calls and James van Riemsdyk’s desperation chance at the empty net was the fact Toronto managed to get through that panic-stricken stretch without so much as surrendering an actual shot on goal. It is little wonder then that the Leafs were able to crawl out of TD Garden with a 4-3 victory that was eight months in the making – to the day.
And while it’s obviously a stretch to even loosely compare Game 7 of last year’s first-round series against Boston to Game 48 of this regular season, there was clearly some symbolic significance for the Toronto players themselves. Winning goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who was still a Los Angeles King when the Collapse on Causeway occurred, didn’t even hesitate when he was asked what he hoped the Leafs would take from the night.
“Maturity,” he said. “It’s not easy to come into this building, especially with what they went through last year losing Game 7. It shows a lot of character for that team to come here and win it.”
If you were to close your eyes for a few seconds during the final minutes of the game, the raucous atmosphere was virtually identical to what went down here during the Bruins dramatic comeback victory last May. The Boston players were throwing hits all over the ice – van Riemsdyk even had his glove knocked into the stands after a hard check from Johnny Boychuk – and seemed to smell blood in the water against the reeling Leafs.
However, the visitors managed to maintain at least some sense of awareness with Zdeno Chara parked at the edge of Bernier’s crease and an extra Bruins attacker circling the offensive zone. First Tim Gleason got his right ankle in front of a Torey Krug shot and gamely struggled back to his feet. Then Tyler Bozak wisely tied up David Krejci’s stick to deny him a top-quality scoring chance from in-close.
The final act of desperation saw Gleason, who was still feeling guilty after a bad pinch in the first period, literally dive into the slot and stop a Patrice Bergeron point shot right in its tracks.
“I just had to do something,” said Gleason.
“I’m probably not going to give you 20 goals,” added the stay-at-home defenceman. “If I can do that, that’ll make (up for it). … I can block a shot or two to help the team out.”
It was clearly not the kind of ending Randy Carlyle would ever draw up, but the coach couldn’t complain about the effort. He’s pleaded with his players in recent months to give a little more and has now seen them put in three good performances in a row – all while a flu bug has made its way through the dressing room.
Of course, the real test will be whether the Leafs can build off the emotions of their first regulation win away from Air Canada Centre since Oct. 30. There was already talk of doing that after a 7-3 victory over Chicago on Dec. 13 and a 3-2 shootout win over Detroit at the Winter Classic … and it never came to fruition.
However, Carlyle left TD Garden believing that his players might have learned something while securing these two points. They had dropped 11 of their last 12 regular-season encounters against Boston before this game, including two previous meetings this year.
“Hopefully it bleeds some of the demons out of us – that we can come in and have success in any building,” said Carlyle. “To be a good team, to be a playoff team, to be a team that’s going to challenge (for the Stanley Cup), you have to win on the road.”
There were plenty of things to smile about as Toronto started looking ahead to Wednesday’s home game against Buffalo. Tyler Bozak continued his hot streak with two more goals while linemate Phil Kessel, who was shifted around to get some time away from Chara, picked up three assists. The team struck twice on the power play and Bernier closed the door during three penalty killing situations, not to mention an early breakaway from Jarome Iginla.
Of course, everyone managed to get through the frantic final minutes – something that eluded them here last spring. It was a chaotic countdown to the buzzer both then and now.
“It’s fun, that’s why we play hockey,” said Bernier. “A little extra pressure and I thought we reacted in a good way.”
You couldn’t miss the similarities to Game 7, especially if you were one of the Leafs players who lived through it. Nazem Kadri even mumbled “almost déjà vu” to this reporter as he exited the dressing room.
And while there will be no erasing that memory – heck, there’s still a long way to go before Toronto even secures another playoff spot – there was at least some confidence to be found in the fact that they found a way to shut the door.
“It almost felt like it was the playoffs again and this time we came out on top,” said defenceman Jake Gardiner. “It’s just too bad that it wasn’t last year that that happened.”