Carlyle’s return to Anaheim an inspiring one

After facing the Ducks, the Leafs visit San Jose on Tuesday and Los Angeles on Thursday before wrapping things up with trips to Washington and Detroit. (Mark Blinch/CP)

ANAHEIM, Calif. – It had been 831 days since Randy Carlyle stood behind the bench at Honda Center and looked up at the 2007 Stanley Cup banner his Anaheim Ducks raised to the rafters here.

There were a lot of picturesque California sunsets and sunrises between then and now. Plenty of time for reflection for everyone involved.

So there was a sentimental feeling as Carlyle returned to his first NHL head coaching home – the place where he’ll always be remembered as the man who helped get a talented group of players over the top. The 2007 Ducks made history as the first California-based team to win the Stanley Cup and Carlyle was asked on Monday about his own role in that accomplishment.

He wouldn’t bite. In fact, he acknowledged that he’s reluctant to even wear his championship for fear it might look like he’s flaunting that success.

“In reality, it’s the players that go out there and earn it,” Carlyle said. “The coaches, you swing the gate (open). That’s one of the things that we’re trying to always sell our players on: When they take responsibility for the actions that go out on the ice, then coaching becomes easy.”

If there is one thing we have learned about this particular group of Maple Leafs, it’s that they seem to have accepted more of the responsibility in the last month or two. The unexpected 3-1 victory over Anaheim on Monday night vaulted them to 14-4-3 over their last 21 games – a stat made all the better when you consider where they were when it started.

No one saw this coming back on Jan. 9 when the Hurricanes laid a thorough 6-1 pounding on Toronto. Carlyle appeared to be at his wit’s end that night and some would use that occasion to start calling for his job.

That talk has since disappeared and you need look no further than the Leafs top players for a reason why. They have truly taken this team by the horns, something that couldn’t be missed on Monday as Toronto handed Anaheim just its sixth regulation loss at home all year.

It was a span of six minutes 53 seconds where Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak gave their team a 3-0 lead. First Bozak scored on a power play, then Kessel converted on a breakaway after Bozak chipped the puck off Ryan Getzlaf’s stick. Paul Ranger added a much-needed insurance goal by finishing off a 2-on-1 with Kessel and that was more than enough of a lead for Jonathan Bernier.

The Leafs goaltender was extremely busy over the final two periods, making 34 of his 43 saves, to help Carlyle walk out of Honda Center with two points that were more satisfying than most. It was Ranger who noticed that the coach was a little more enthusiastic than usual after this victory.

After a life spent in hockey, Carlyle knows how this all works.

There aren’t a lot of nights like this one in the unpredictable world of professional sports and, as a coach in particular, there is only so much control over the outcome. Carlyle has likened the job to that of a door-to-door salesman – where you’re constantly trying to get your players to buy into a vision for how the game needs to be played.

It was particularly interesting to arrive in Anaheim and hear both Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne acknowledge that they could have done more to keep Carlyle employed before his firing on Dec. 1, 2011. Many of the core members of that team remain here today and time has given them perspective on what the coach was trying to accomplish in those tough final weeks when they stopped buying what he was selling.

“We were playing really bad at that time and I think he did everything that he could to wake the team up,” said Selanne. “It just doesn’t work. I think all of the players can look in the mirror and say `We didn’t do our job.’

“Most of the time the coach has to pay the price and that was the case again. It was tough to see him go.”

Carlyle is now knee-deep into his next NHL assignment and trying to repeat the success he had over seven-plus years with the Ducks. It is no secret that there is a long way to go. The coach mentions the need for better defensive play at least a couple times per week and saw his team go into a bit of a shell after building the 3-0 lead against the Ducks on Monday.

However, there is a feeling in the Leafs dressing room that some positive strides have been made. A rough stretch in December came when they faced a series of tough Western Conference teams so to come here in March and beat one of those was satisfying.

With games in San Jose on Tuesday and Los Angeles on Thursday, there is still more opportunity to measure how far they’ve come.

“We’re still a really young group, you know?” said Bernier. “It takes time, it takes games to learn from, mistakes. I find that we’re really playing with confidence right now.
“We’ve grown as a team and that’s what we want.”

The Leafs now sit second in the Atlantic Division and are in excellent position to earn a second straight playoff berth this spring. That would represent a positive step for Carlyle and his staff, especially given some of the bumps along the way.

Unusually reflective upon returning to Southern California, the veteran coach detailed what went right during his time with the Ducks. It sounded a lot like the kind of statement he’ll hope to make when his time in Toronto eventually comes to a close.

“You come to work and you try to put your best foot forward day in and day out,” said Carlyle. “The one thing that we’ll always take pride in is that we as a coaching staff when we were here felt that when we left this organization they were in a better position than when we came here.

“That’s all you can really say.”

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