TORONTO – The way things all fell apart last spring — in blame and anger and misery amidst three blown leads in a Game 7 — you wouldn’t blame the Toronto Maple Leafs Friday if their mind was preoccupied with a revenge plot for Saturday at Boston’s TD Garden and a return to the scene of the crime.
The Bruins are a staunch division rival and architect of the two most agonizing Leafs collapses for a generation of fans. Despite a minor goaltending controversy, Boston is right back to its winning ways (8-5-2) and should be jockeying with Toronto for one of the Atlantic’s two home-ice playoff spots yet again.
Coming into Friday night’s affair, a scant two points separated the Maple Leafs from the Bruins in the divisional standings, while a recent funk has slunk the New Jersey Devils to the Metropolitan basement.
Any temptation to glance past New Jersey, however, was resisted, both in coach Mike Babcock’s chosen starter — the dialed-in Frederik Andersen — and the execution of the 18 skaters in front of him.
The result? A 6-1 dismantling of the Devils, as witnessed by Martin Brodeur and the rest of the honoured 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame Class, and back-to-back victories on home ice for the first time this season.
"As soon as you look past someone, what happens to you? They come in and they just thump you. You don’t touch the puck. I think we’ve got that lesson a couple of times this year already," Babcock said.
"The other thing about it is, I feel like we’ve pressed more at home. We haven’t been as loose. Last game, we found a way to win the game [versus Vegas].
"We want to build off that and get some momentum going at home."
No better way for Babcock’s bunch to do that than to get contributions up and down the lineup and turn in their soundest performance in this building since it was renamed the Scotiabank Arena. (Of course, a lightweight opponent helps).
John Tavares opened the scoring midway through the first period on a gift of a feed from Ron Hainsey, and a team that struggled mightily to get on the board early has now scored first in three straight games and improves to 6-0-0 when drawing first blood.
Toronto poured it on in the second frame, funneling pucks past New Jersey backup-turned-starter Keith Kinkaid in bunches.
That trio has shown flashes of life since Auston Matthews went down with his shoulder injury on Oct. 27, and needed a mini explosion like the one they delivered against Jersey.
"I feel like the hardest part is you have to be good every day, or you’re gonna get run over," Johnsson said. ""We can’t rely on [the top six] every game. We’ve got to step up and score a couple goals."
"Brownie – any time you feel you’re a scorer and you don’t score, I think it probably eats you up a little bit. I thought the last two games their line has been real good," Babcock said. "It’s important those guys get going."
Andersen, consistent as ever, stoned MVP Taylor Hall on a breakaway and flashed the leather on a Sami Vatanen slapper en route to a 38-save performance that felt so routine, he commented on the lack of action at his end through the first 20 minutes.
Andersen’s save percentage over his past five starts is a sparkling .962, and his nine wins tie him for the league lead.
Cue the "Fred-die!" chants.
Morgan Rielly added to his own lead atop the Rocket Richard race (Defencemen’s Division), by floating a muffin from the point that Kinkaid, looking through layers of screening bodies, never saw fly past his shoulder. A little embarrassed such a weak shot found a hole, Rielly could be seen apologizing to Kinkaid afterward.
Rielly, who’s never hit double digits in the goal column, already has seven before Remembrance Day.
"Morgan’s goal was a little bit telling of how the night went for us," Andersen said.
Attention, Cory Schneider: Feel free to come back and play like your healthy best self any time soon.
The most critical name on the score sheet belonged to Johnsson, who recently copped to waning confidence and declining happiness.
"It’s hard mentally," Johnsson said. "Too often it’s not there."
Johnsson bolted to the crease and was rewarded with his first of the year off a Jake Gardiner pass, and the relief that washed over the young Swede’s face was detectable from the nose-bleeders.
"When you get one like that, it helps the confidence quite a bit, so good for him for playing a great game and flying around and getting a goal," Rielly said. "It’s not like he hasn’t been playing well; the puck just hasn’t been going in, so I’d expect that to change."
Then, just for giggles, Tyler Ennis scored unassisted in garbage time, and a goal-spoiled crowd booed when a presumed Marleau goal was wiped off the Jumbotron on account of a high stick.
Toronto had no issue with the touchdown but just missed on the conversion.
"The more we spread out the scoring, the better," Marleau said.
For the first time all season, the Maple Leafs received tangible contributions from each of its four lines — a jolt of positivity that should serve them well on Friday’s late-night charter to Boston.
"Everyone got to play, everyone had some puck touches and, so, in the end, you feel good," said Babcock, now free to turn his sights on Saturday’s date with revenge.
"Plus, we didn’t put too much stress on our team playing back-to-back. Now it gives us a better opportunity."