TORONTO – Four nights earlier in the very same building, Dion Phaneuf made an error that would cost his team victory. He would more than make up for it on Sunday evening.
The Toronto captain scored the all-important first goal as the Leafs again edged the Bruins for an inspiring and ever-impressive 2-1 victory, the series shifting back improbably to Boston for the decisive game 7 on Monday night.
"Obviously with our last game in here, I didn't feel great about the outcome and my decision that was made," said Phaneuf afterward, the goal marking his first in the postseason as a Leaf. "I felt that I owed it to the guys … it definitely felt good."
In somewhat ironic parallels to the error of overtime in game 4, Phaneuf strode deep into the offensive zone and onto the doorstep of Tuukka Rask early in the third frame, deftly tipping the shot attempt of Nazem Kadri behind the Bruins netminder while jolting an Air Canada Centre crowd into predictable frenzy.
Unlike the gamble which preceded David Krejci's stinging winner last Wednesday, this risk would pay dividends. "That wasn't in my mind right then," Phaneuf said, distinguishing both instances as "hockey plays".
"I saw Naz get the puck and I thought I should probably stay there," he explained, his pick-pocket attempt in the defensive zone beginning the sequence. "He's a very skilled player that finds ways to get the puck through and it was a great shot to get it through and luckily I tipped it."
Phil Kessel would snipe his third of the series and eventual winner about seven minutes later, a second straight Toronto victory thrusting the favoured Bruins onto the ropes for an all-or-nothing game 7.
Logic would have suggested that Phaneuf's miscalculation in game 4 would have cemented control of the series to Boston, but instead the opposite has proved true. An oddly confident bunch in the moments after that defeat – which gave the Bruins a 3-1 series advantage – the Leafs reeked of a sneaky swagger, believing as Joffrey Lupul put it that they were "just playing better and better".
As the self-appointed "underdog", they head back to Boston with every manner of unlikely momentum, a plucky group in revolt with nothing to lose.
"We've got quite a task ahead of us," Kadri concluded of the all-or-nothing matter at hand. "We know we're going to have to bring our best in order to have a chance."
1. Reimer bests Rask again
James Reimer followed up a stunning 43-save performance in game 5 with 29 stops on Sunday night, besting his Bruins counterpart for the second consecutive game. Reimer has now faced 237 shots in the series – most in the playoffs – a hearty .932 save percentage exactly equal to that of Rask. "Reims is giving us a chance to win hockey games," said Phaneuf of the 25-year-old. "The saves that he's been making are big-time saves. He looks very confident and calm and that feeds our team. I can't say enough good things about how he's played, how solid he's played, he's been a huge part of our team's success."
Just as he had two nights earlier in Boston, Reimer made a shocking and potentially game-saving stop on Patrice Bergeron. It was less than seven minutes into the second frame, Reimer sprawling to his left on a wrap-around attempt from Bergeron, getting just enough of the puck to keep the game scoreless. "Both are pretty lucky," Reimer said, a right pad stop on the Bruins pivot similarly highlight worthy in game 5. "This one was kind of a weird play. I got caught scrambling around my net and the only thing I could do was dive back and lucky enough he didn't tuck it."
2. Phaneuf's redemption story
Then a member of the Flames, Phaneuf last scored a postseason goal on April 15, 2008, Calgary falling to San Jose that night. His clutch marker on Sunday evening proved perhaps a needed reminder of the slim margins between success and failure, one gamble instilling a deep wound, another the highlight in a remarkable victory. "He's the leader of our team," Kadri said of Phaneuf, who also led the team with 25 minutes in game 6. "He's the guy that really takes the most heat when things aren't going so well … Hopefully everyone's off his back a little bit because he's an important piece to this puzzle."
"When you play as many minutes and you are the focus of your hockey club when a lot of things don't go the way they're supposed to go, being the captain, that sea becomes pretty heavy," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle offered. "And when you make a mistake in which he did your teammates want to rally around you and you want to try to correct that as quickly as possible." Carlyle was most impressed with Phaneuf's performance in game 5, the Leafs also winning that night by a 2-1 margin. "He was much more under control," Carlyle said, "he did a lot of good things, he chewed some big minutes, played all of the key situations and again he followed that up tonight."
3. Bozak, Colborne and Carlyle's trickery
Joe Colborne learned shortly after the fifth game of the series that he would suit up for game 6, his first ever in the NHL postseason. But he had to keep it a secret, all in an attempt to keep up the ruse as it pertained to Tyler Bozak. The Leafs number one centre would not play on Sunday night, kept out with an upper-body injury. And while Bozak would take the morning skate and pre-game warm-up, there was seemingly no debate on his status. "Everybody's interviewing [Bozak] about the big game coming up and I was just sitting over here by myself; the boys were liking that" said a gleeful Colborne. "Randy likes to get every possible advantage and whether they were getting ready to match up against [Bozak] who knows, but I'm just so happy and thankful for the opportunity."
Nerves were predictably raging for the 23-year-old, little to no sleep on Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon. He would line up alongside Joffrey Lupul and Matt Frattin, a fact that surprised everyone save for two people outside the organization. "I wasn't even allowed to tell anyone except my parents," said Colborne, "I had to make them swear that they weren't going to spread it, even to my sisters."
The Bruins draft pick logged about 15 minutes, finishing with two shots, six hits and 4-13 mark on the draw.
4. Kadri steps up
Stepping into the void left by Bozak, who remains day-to-day according to Carlyle, was Kadri, who slotted onto a line with Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. The 22-year-old played about 14 minutes and finished 3-13 in the faceoff circle, but was at his most impactful and urgent offensively, notching his second point of the playoffs on Phaneuf's game opening goal. "He was much more noticeable from a skating standpoint," Carlyle said of Kadri, who also had four hits and won the faceoff preceding Kessel's game-winner. "When he skates and he can create room he can make plays and that's what you saw tonight. That's been absent, but he delivered in a big way tonight."
Kadri had mustered just a single assist and 11 shots in the opening five games of the series, predictably adjusting to the rhythm of the postseason. "The pace of the game right now is where he's not skating away from anybody; the back-side pressure is catching him," Carlyle said Saturday afternoon. "We asked Nazzie to play more of a north-south game and he's typically been an east-west type of player; he doesn't really forge straight ahead with the puck a lot. If you notice a Kessel or a Lupul they're heading down the ice with a tremendous amount of steam and going with quickness where Nazzie's kind of a guy that likes to go sideway … I think the speed of the game and power of players has caught him from the back-side pressure from the Boston Bruins."
At points in his recent struggles, Kadri has been caught too often standing still, not skating with the emphasis desired of his coach. "Maybe the first couple games just trying to figure things out a little bit," Kadri conceded of the postseason. "But that's part of the development not only for myself but for this team. I think this experience is definitely going to make us all a lot better."
5. Youth in revolt
Ryan O'Byrne began his postseason career in the spring of 2008 against these very same Bruins. What's taken the now 28-year-old by pleasant surprise is the manner in which a youthful and inexperienced squad has navigated against a veteran Boston lineup. "I didn't realize how much youth there is, skilled youth, really good players that seem, in this playoffs, [to be] really coming into their own as players," he said before game 6. "It's exciting to watch. This is a team that's going to be good for a lot of years." O'Byrne watched the series opener from the press box and sensed the nerves of the group in a 4-1 loss, 10 Leafs playing in the playoffs for the first time. "That's what I think I loved about game 2 was our ability to put that game 1 behind us," he said of the 4-2 victory. "You saw guys, especially young guys, elevate their game to that next level and ever since then we've been playing really good hockey." His teammates, he noted, have not been owned by the pressure of the moment despite their relative inexperience. "You look at guys like Jay Bouwmeester," he said, "who's played in this league for 10 years and he's played 700 regular season games, sometimes you don't get that many chances to play in the playoffs. If you're going to be nervous and not enjoy the moment then it's a wasted opportunity. You've got to love the moment and love playing in a city like Toronto.
"I think as a group we've done a good job with that, not being nervous against a Boston Bruin team that has a lot of experience and has been in these situations before. We've just not worried about that, put that stuff aside and just gone and played hockey."
Quote of the Night
"Obviously with our last game in here, I didn't feel great about the outcome and my decision that was made. But I felt that I owed it to the guys and luckily I was able to tip that. It definitely felt good."
-Dion Phaneuf on scoring the game's first goal on Sunday night.
237: Total shots faced by James Reimer.
.932: Save percentage for Reimer in the postseason.
2: Assists for James van Riemsdyk, who leads the Leafs with five points in the playoffs.
20-60: Leafs on the draw in game 6, led by Jay McClement, who finished 8-16.
12: Career playoff goals for Phil Kessel in 21 career games. Kessel has 19 points in that span.
2: Points in the past two games for the Bruins previously scorching line of David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton. Lucic managed the lone goal for Boston in game 6.
18:53: Nik Kulemin, leading all Toronto forwards.
Game 7 at the TD Garden on Monday night.