TORONTO - He outmuscles the Carolina forward for the puck along the wall in the defensive zone. He winds up at his own goal-line and bursts through the neutral zone with loads of speed. He shifts the puck from forehand to backhand and blows by the Carolina defender. He cuts into the blue paint. His first attempt draws some iron. He tucks it in with one last push.
"He was determined," said Leaf coach Randy Carlyle afterward, "and he wasn't going to take no for an answer."
He was Joffrey Lupul and on Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre, he helped rescue his team from defeat, going end to end for the Highlight of the Night and game-winning goal as the Leafs picked up points for the seventh straight game (4-0-3), helping to further solidify their playoff position with 13 games to go.
"We were confident we were going to win the game the whole time," Lupul remarked of the eventual 6-3 victory. "And that's a sign of our team really maturing … last year we probably wouldn't win that game and this year we did."
The goal simply doused another batch of fuel on the sizzling Lupul fire. He has sniped at least a goal in all five games upon his return from injury, totaling seven markers and a pair of assists in that impressive span.
For the Leafs, it was the tipping point on a game they needed to capture. Their two-goal lead opposite a floundering Hurricanes squad - now having lost seven straight - had been erased entirely and a near-certain victory was in peril. "Not a lot of things were going right for us for a little while there in the hockey game," Carlyle noted, "but they reached back and found a way and that's what it's about. It's about getting points here."
A one-time rocket from Dion Phaneuf knotted the score. And then with just over three minutes to go in regulation - his feed setting up that game-tying goal - Lupul grabbed the puck and failed to let go. "We were just kind of in shock that he took it from end-to-end and took it right into the paint like that," Cody Franson said. "But that's the kind of thing that he's capable of doing."
"Pretty sick," added James Reimer, who made 19 saves. "You don't get to witness something like that very often."
The goal and eventual victory opened up a 10-point cushion between the two clubs, an opportunity to bury the Hurricanes from view snatched in the final moments. Holding onto the six-seed in the East, the Leafs with 42 points, are now just two back of the Senators, with whom they meet in Ottawa on Saturday.
1. Lupul's skating
Stuck on the shelf for about eight weeks with a fractured right forearm, Lupul employed the lengthy recovery time to address at least one asset: his skating. "Yeah, big time," he said. Much of the credit he owed to Barb Underhill, the team's skating coach. Working with Lupul on the ice, Underhill also utilized a video program which allowed for comparison and review between different players. Hurricanes uber-youngster Jeff Skinner was actually one player with whom Lupul was often contrasted. "…she would compare my stride to his and just see where the deficiencies were and where he was gaining speed on me so we tweaked a couple things," Lupul said. "We worked four days a week for three weeks and it certainly helped."
2. Different approach on the bench
According to Carlyle, the Leaf coaching staff has evolved in their approach during games like Thursday in which a 2-0 lead evaporated in less than five minutes. "We as coaches were probably doing a poor job early in the year from ramping up the intensity instead of calming it down," Carlyle said. "We were doing too much yelling, too much talking, there was too much. So we decided that we would take a quieter, calmer approach when those things happen and really just relate to the players that we can get ourselves out of this." Carlyle recalled a discussion amongst the coaches in which assistants Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin first raised the concern.
3. Kessel's burst
He didn't score on Thursday night but Phil Kessel was dynamic against the Hurricanes, totaling six shots, at least one bar and a pair of assists. Kessel leads the Leafs with 18 points in March, has totaled 30 points in the last 26 games and sits a point back of Nazem Kadri for the overall team lead in scoring (34). Asked what made his linemate unique in comparison to other talents he'd played with in Philadelphia, James van Riemsdyk replied, "I think just his game-breaking speed. Any time he gets the puck he's a threat to take a guy wide and get a good shot on net. Just got to find him in stride, put it on his tape and he does the rest." Tied for fifth league-wide with 24 assists, Kessel set up the first two Toronto goals, feeding Tyler Bozak for the opener before finding Cody Franson back-door for a power-play marker and 2-0 lead.
4. JVR's dry spell
The van Riemsdyk goal drought continued, meanwhile. While he has piled up 14 goals on the year - tied for the team lead - he has just three in the past 17 games and none in the past nine. "Scoring goals would be a start," Carlyle said of needed changes in the 23-year-old's performance prior to the win over Carolina. "That's what we've asked of JVR, it's get back into those dirty areas, hang around the front of that net, use your size and use your speed, take bodies and pucks to the net."
In addition to his words, Carlyle also took action. He replaced van Riemsdyk on the top line midway through a win over Florida on Tuesday, keeping the unit (which included Lupul) intact through Thursday's morning skate and pre-game warmup. Then just before puck-drop, he reinserted van Riemsdyk alongside Kessel and Bozak, the line combining for seven shots in the opening frame.
van Riemsdyk was off the unit yet by the end of the night however with Lupul rejoining Kessel and Bozak midway through the third frame with the Leafs down a goal.
5. Message to Gardiner
As Thursday's morning skate wound down, Randy Carlyle pulled Jake Gardiner aside for a conversation and demonstration on needed improvements in the defensive zone. He went on to scratch the 22-year-old against the Hurricanes. "I think Randy wants me to hit guys more," Gardiner told TSN.ca on Thursday morning, "not necessarily hit them I guess, just finish my check, rub [the opposing player] out at least. I did it last year, but I didn't really think about doing it as much as I probably should now." At a slight 184 pounds, Gardiner doesn't have the benefit of size to outmuscle opponents, but as Carlyle instructed, his positioning can stand to be more effective. "I'm not going to crush anybody out there usually," Gardiner said, "it's more of having good body position and being really good with my stick." Gardiner had logged 20-plus minutes in five of the six games he played upon return from the Marlies, but had endured speed bumps. He was danced by Shawn Matthias for the game-tying goal against Florida most recently. "Guys are a lot more skilled," he said of the difference between the two leagues, "and it's harder to close on guys. It's definitely something I need to work on."
Quote of the Night
"Pretty sick. You don't get to witness something like that very often."
-James Reimer on Joffrey Lupul's game-winning goal.
Quote of the Night II
"The building's getting better. The fans are a little more into the game and I think they can get a sense right now that this is actually a real good hockey team."
-Joffrey Lupul on the ACC's improved atmosphere.
4-0-3: Leaf record during a season-long seven-game point streak.
7: Goals for Joffrey Lupul during a five-game goal streak.
6 goals, 12 assists, 18 points: Numbers for Phil Kessel in March.
10-6-2: Toronto home record.
6: Points for Nik Kulemin in the past seven games, including an empty-net goal and assist on Thursday.
21: Points for Dion Phaneuf this season, tied for seventh-best among all NHL defenders.
7: Goals for Phaneuf, tied for second-best among NHL defenders.
5: Points for Tyler Bozak in the past two games, including a three-point night against the Hurricanes.
21:51: Joffrey Lupul, most among Leaf forwards.
The Leafs head to the nation's capital for a clash with the surprising Senators.