TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs walked away from Wednesday’s game calling it their best of the season. Down the hall, Los Angeles Kings defenceman Drew Doughty was musing about it being one of his team’s worst.
That is no coincidence, of course, but you would have expected the roles to be reversed when the puck first dropped at Air Canada Centre.
However, in a much-needed change of events, Randy Carlyle’s team managed to play up to the high standard of a quality opponent. In fact, the Kings even admitted to being a little unprepared for the Leafs offensive attack after escaping with a 3-1 victory.
"They’re pretty unique in the way they stretch the game out," Los Angeles captain Dustin Brown told Sportsnet. "It’s just a lot different than the way we play I guess. Once their ‘D’ get the puck, their forwards kind of blow the zone. With some of their dynamic players they caught us a couple times.
"I think that’s probably the one thing that kind of caught us a little bit off guard."
It was the kind of performance that caught virtually every observer off guard. Not only did the Leafs outshoot an opponent for just the fourth time this season, they did so by a comfortable 39-23 margin. Were it not for the continued stellar goaltending of rookie Martin Jones this would almost certainly have been a Toronto victory.
And while there are no moral victories for a team that is barely holding down the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, the Leafs may just have proven something to themselves by putting in a consistent performance for a full 60 minutes.
That has been a long time coming during an indifferent 16-13-3 start to the season.
"By far it was our best effort in the last couple of months," Carlyle said. "But no reward for it. And we have to use it as a starting point."
Toronto’s ability to control the play for long stretches in the offensive zone was particularly impressive. The Kings entered the evening as one of the NHL’s top puck possession teams and were just 24 hours removed from a 6-0 humbling of the previously red-hot Montreal Canadiens.
With Leafs captain – and big-time minutes eater – Dion Phaneuf watching from the press box because of suspension, it didn’t exactly set up as the kind of night for the blue and white to break out.
Yet the home team showed early jump and didn’t get overly deterred when a holding penalty by centre Peter Holland in the offensive zone turned into a 1-0 Kings lead thanks to a gorgeous shot by Doughty on the ensuing power play. Even after that, Toronto continued to push and missed on a couple chances to tie it up before the first intermission.
As usual, most of the dangerous opportunities were generated with Toronto’s top trio on the ice. James van Riemsdyk continued his strong season by generating seven shots on goal while Phil Kessel and Nazem Kadri had numerous chances of their own. None of them found their way behind Jones, who is 4-0-0 to start his NHL career and has allowed just three goals on 114 total shots so far.
"That top line is a really good line – they create a lot of chances," Doughty said. "Besides them, I thought we shut down the other ones pretty well. That top line did a lot of damage to us, got some good scoring chances.
"Next time we play them we’re going to definitely pay a little more attention to them."
It was rare to see Toronto have so much success in imposing its will on an opponent, especially one as good as the Kings. Better results are sure to follow if they can make it a habit and Thursday’s visit to St. Louis is as good a place as any to try and repeat it.
In future, the Leafs would be wise to show just a little more patience – a trait that seems to be a hallmark of all the top teams in the Western Conference.
The only real difference in Wednesday’s game was a decision by Toronto defenceman Paul Ranger to pinch in the offensive zone midway through the final period. Seconds later, Jeff Carter was leading a two-on-one rush up the ice and eventually scored the winner through the legs of former teammate Jonathan Bernier.
"Bad decision," Carlyle said in reference to Ranger. "In a 1-1 hockey game with 10 minutes left, it’s an ill-advised pinch."
Still, the Leafs managed to show the Kings something here, to say nothing of themselves. The challenge lies in finding a way to do it again and again. "We had so many opportunities, so many offensive chances," noted Carlyle.
They finally looked something like the team they yearn to be.