TORONTO – Asked if he ever envisioned this level of potential from Joffrey Lupul when the two were first linked in Anaheim years back, Randy Carlyle replied firmly in the negative.
"No," said Carlyle flatly, "I didn't. Or we probably never would've traded him."
Lupul was a force yet again on Tuesday night, scoring twice alongside a familiar duo as the Leafs extended their point streak to six games (3-0-3) with a close 3-2 victory over the Panthers. Rejoining Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak on the top unit midway through the game, Lupul added his fifth and sixth goals of the year. He now has a marker in every game since his return from a fractured right forearm 10 days ago.
"You've just got to enjoy this while it goes," he said of the four-game goal streak. "I'm not expecting it to last forever so I've got to just keep doing other things on the ice right and continue to be a factor in every game."
Charged and simply electric whenever he's been on the ice – he served a two-game suspension in addition to the injury – Lupul seems to be gunning at a different level since his return from a 25-game absence earlier this month. An All-Star for the first time a year ago when he scored a career-best 67 points, Lupul's game continues to climb.
"He's playing really good hockey right now," Bozak said. "He's burying his opportunities and he's working hard, doing great in the corners and playing good defensively so he's really doing it all."
1. Shuffling the deck
With Tuesday being their fifth game in seven nights, the Leafs were a sluggish bunch coming out of the gate and found themselves down a goal and outshot 16-7 after the opening frame. "[S]eeing nothing" from his group in a potential letdown game following an emotional pair against the Bruins, Carlyle decided it was time to pull the plug and try something new – relatively speaking that is. He reconnected Kessel and Bozak with their regular running mate from the past two seasons – replacing the struggling James van Riemsdyk – and the trio came together for two Lupul goals in the final frame. "I think we clicked right off the bat," said Bozak, who tallied assists on both goals, including a direct feed to Lupul for the second marker. "We've played with each other a lot in the past couple years so it wasn't anything different. It seemed like we knew where each other were and we were lucky enough to get a couple there."
"We didn't have a lot going," Carlyle said of his decision to shake things up with the Leafs down 1-0. "We were a step and a half behind. We just weren't skating and they were much more eager than we were. They won a lot more puck battles and they executed to a higher level so we had to do something. Just couldn't continue to go on that way."
2. Carlyle's reward
Moments after he shuffled the deck – van Riemsdyk took a shift or two with Nazem Kadri before concluding the night alongside Mikhail Grabovski – Carlyle was rewarded with a game-tying goal, Dion Phaneuf burying his sixth of the year past Jacob Markstrom. "It's like you're pounding on a horse that's given up down the stretch and you're hoping that he finds a little bit more heart and that's what I believe they did," Carlyle said of trying to establish an emotional charge from his group after taking three of four points from Boston. "They reached back and found some more. They're to be commended." The two sides exchanged goals early in the third before Lupul sealed it with his second of the night on a laser between the pads of Markstrom. "Things were a little stagnant for us probably in the first period," Lupul said. "Sometimes a little switch can freshen everyone up a little bit so that's what happened and we made [Carlyle] look good."
Also required in victory was a sharp outing from Ben Scrivens. The 26-year-old set a career-high with 40 saves, the only two pucks that snuck by both ricocheted off skates in front. "Again you focus on what you can control," he said. "It's hockey. It's a dynamic game. Weird bounces happen. At least it didn't go in off a stanchion." Luck did end up on Scrivens side after all. Tuesday marked the first victory for him in over a month, his last win coming all the way back on February 25th, a 4-2 defeat of the Flyers in Philadelphia.
3. Ditching the skid
An early March skid is now firmly in the past for the Leafs, who have taken at least a point in six consecutive games. "We know how important every single game is this year," Bozak said, questioned on how the team stayed on the rails this March as opposed to last season's epic collapse. "There's teams chasing us and we're trying to catch teams ahead of us. Obviously we've got a good group of leaders in here that are keeping us mentally focused and prepared. Good coaching staff. We're just trying to not have any lapses or go too many games without a win because if you've do that you're out of the race again."
The Leafs remain sixth in the East with 40 points, two back of the Senators in fifth, but maybe more importantly, seven up of the Islanders in ninth.
4. Lupul, Leafs leadership
A prominent presence around the Toronto dressing room, Lupul was designated an alternate captain before the year began and with good reason. "When you come and watch us practice he definitely separates himself the first day of practice when you watch him out there," Carlyle said of Lupul. "He just plays the game at a higher level and works at a higher level than a lot of people and that's a great example for our younger players."
"You can't say enough positive things that he's brought to the room," Scrivens said. "But really, he's just supplemented all the great leadership that we already have in this room. Dion and Johnny Liles, Clarke MacArthur, a lot of old guys. Old. We'll say veteran guys who've played a lot of games in this league who know how to lead by example. The two Russian guys [Grabovski and Nik Kulemin] have been around for a while. They don't speak a ton but their work ethic is second to none. Every time we watch video it's 'Match yourself to Kulie, match yourself to Grabo'. I think we've got a lot of guys that are stepping up into different leadership roles and Joffrey's definitely one of them."
5. Kadri's penalties
While his five-game point streak came to an end, Nazem Kadri continued to draw minor penalties at an incredible rate. Kadri drew two calls against the Panthers, a tripping call against Filip Kuba and a hooking infraction on Colby Robak. The 22-year-old has drawn an astounding 22 penalties in 34 games this season or about 19 per cent of his team's power-plays.
Quote of the Night
"It's like you're pounding on a horse that's given up down stretch and you're hoping that he finds a little bit more heart and that's what I believe they did. They reached back and found some more. They're to be commended."
-Randy Carlyle, on his team finding an extra gear Tuesday following a sluggish start.
6: Goals for Joffrey Lupul in four games since his return from injury.
20: Assists for Phil Kessel this season, including a pair on Tuesday.
16: Points for Kessel in March, first on the team.
22-57: Leafs on the draw versus the Panthers.
42: Shots for the Panthers, second-highest for a Leaf opponent this season.
18: Points for Dion Phaneuf, tied with Cody Franson for the team lead among defenders.
3-0-3: Leafs record in the past six games.
9-6-2: Leafs home record this season.
18:39: Joffrey Lupul.
The Leafs host the Hurricanes at the ACC on Thursday before heading to Ottawa for a Saturday clash with the Senators.