TORONTO – James Reimer could only imagine what was going through the mind of his head coach as the Leafs nearly slipped and fell en route to victory on Wednesday night.
"His heart probably stopped a few times," Reimer grinned, "as did most of ours I think."
Clinging to a rapidly evaporating lead in the final minutes and moments of regulation, Reimer and the Leafs eventually held on for a 5-4 win against the Senators, their third straight victory and fifth in the past six games at home.
"We won the hockey game and we got two points," Randy Carlyle said simply afterward. "Is it a masterpiece? You be the judge."
Carlyle's group found a way to win – again. And perhaps that's emblematic of their relative success at the halfway mark of the season – they sit fifth in the East with 30 points. Not always pretty, not always sharp, not always smooth, the Leafs have found different ways to emerge victorious, helped on this night by a standout effort from their top line.
"You're not always going to play your best," Reimer continued, now 6-1-1 career against the Senators, "your goaltenders aren't going to be the best, your [defencemen], your forwards some games, and you've got to find a way to pull through as a team. I think that's a great trait to have. From a coaching aspect I think they want to see a full 60 minutes and everyone pulling their weight, but having said that when we don't bring our best but we can still win I count that as a positive."
Opportunistic in their offensive flurries and yet not quite sharp in large doses, the Leafs raced out to a pair of three-goal leads – including a 3-0 mark early in the middle period – with Ottawa trimming the gap to one in each instance. Phil Kessel and Nazem Kadri scored to push the margin to 5-2 at the midway point of the final frame before the Senators scored twice, transforming a game that appeared over into a final minute nail-biter. "The bottom line is we gave up too many shots, too many scoring chances," Dion Phaneuf said with the Senators managing 43 shots on Reimer, "but a win's a win and we move forward."
While his team has certainly surprised with its collective effort at the midway point of the 48-game schedule, Carlyle wisely refused to paint a perfect picture, pointing to the need for continued improvement. "To me it's all irrelevant right now," he said. "We're halfway through a season. We've got a lot of work ahead of us. We're going to meet some real good hockey clubs and it starts [Thursday] night in Boston."
1. Rolling at home
After a mediocre start in their home rink – one win in their first five – the Leafs are suddenly rolling with five wins in their last six at the Air Canada Centre. They've outscored the opposition 22-14 in that span, three of the five victories coming by two goals or more. "We weren't thrilled with the way we started at home either," Mark Fraser explained to TSN.ca before the most recent victory. "It wasn't just the media or the fans. That's something we collectively wanted to buckle down and just improve on and throughout the month of February we were able to get better with that." With nine of 13 games this month in their building (they've won the first two), finding a groove in Toronto at this point is paramount. Like Monday's victory over New Jersey, Wednesday's effort against Ottawa wasn't pretty, but at the end of the day the Leafs managed to do just enough for the win. "We can win at home and on the road and not in a neutral place," Reimer joked afterward.
2. Top Line steps up
Generally quiet in recent games, the Leafs top line continued what had begun to take shape in the third period of Monday's victory over the Devils. Kessel and his linemates, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk, managed three of the five Toronto goals with each member of the unit chipping in with a marker. "I think we've been working pretty hard as a line," Kessel said. "We got a couple bounces today which was nice." The 25-year-old led the way with his second three-point effort of the year (one goal, two assists); Wednesday marked just the second multi-point night for Bozak and fifth for van Riemsdyk, who leads the team with 13 goals. "We need not just one line, two lines, we need all three and four lines going," Carlyle said. "We need six D that play the night and the goalie that's in the net at the time to give us their best. And I don't think we've gotten that from our hockey club yet. And that's what's so encouraging for us as a coaching staff because I don't think we've had everybody going on one given night to prove to us or to prove to themselves how good we can be. We've had too many interruptions I would say."
3. Ominous start
Frazer McLaren said Dave Dziurzynski actually declined to fight off a defensive zone faceoff in the opening minute of Wednesday's game. "I asked him and he actually said no so I thought we weren't going to go," McLaren said, "and then he ended up dropping his stuff there when the puck dropped." McLaren caught Dziurzynski with a glancing right hand, instantly knocking him unconscious, his face slamming with a thud on the ice. "I must've just caught him," McLaren continued. "If you catch someone in the right spot (it) doesn't necessarily have to be the hardest punch, you can be knocked out pretty easy." The 25-year-old checked with doctors in between periods to make sure Dziurzynski, who was ruled to have suffered a concussion, was okay. "Those are big tough men fighting," Carlyle said. "You just wish the trainer would get there quicker, that's really the only thought I had is get there as soon as possible."
4. Reimer vs. Senators
Like his teammates, Reimer was admittedly far from perfect, but still managed to piece together another win over Ottawa. The 24-year-old is 6-1-1 in his career against the Senators with a 1.99 goals against average and .937 save percentage. "I think as a group in here we want to clamp down and not be giving up so many goals in the third and obviously that starts with me," he said, "I've got to find a way to make some more saves." Reimer has won all three of his starts since he returned from a knee injury and now sits with a 9-3-0 mark for the year with a 2.56 goals against average and .921 save percentage.
5. Holzer locked up
Korbinian Holzer kept relatively quiet after he and the Leafs agreed to a two-year extension on Tuesday. "I didn't call anybody," he told TSN.ca before the Senators game. "Obviously I'm happy, but for me it's not a big deal. I'm just one player of a big team and a big group. I don't want to take too much out of it. A lot of people called me and congratulated me and I'm very thankful for that, but for me I never really will call people and tell them 'Hey I just signed'." A fourth round selection from the 2006 Draft, Holzer is one of a number of John Ferguson Jr. era prospects (Matt Frattin, James Reimer, Carl Gunnarsson, Nik Kulemin, Leo Komarov) now finding a place with the Leafs, suiting up in his 16th consecutive game since being recalled in early February. "The mandate that we determined over the course of the summer was going to be that we had to find out if he could play in the NHL," Carlyle said Wednesday morning. "You have to find out if those guys can play. There was a team that historically had done that better than any team in the league and that was the Montreal Canadiens in the Sam Pollock era. They made sure, they were 100 per cent sure that they knew their players. We're talking about a different era, but that's basically what their mandate was; they never wanted to give up on a player until they were 100 per cent sure [of] the projections and the possibilities of what he was going to be."
Quote of the Night
"We won the hockey game and we got two points. Is it a masterpiece? You be the judge."
-Randy Carlyle, on his team's performance in their second win against Ottawa this season.
6 games: Kadri extended his point streak with his 10th goal of the year. The 22-year-old has posted five goals and five assists during the six-game span.
4 games: Cody Franson extended his point streak to a modest four games with his fourth assist in four games.
91 per cent: Leafs penalty kill over the past 14 games (40-44), including a perfect 1-for-1 effort against the Senators.
6-5-0: Leafs record at home this season.
24: Fights for the Leafs this season, good for top spot according to hockeyfights.com.
15:40: Tyler Bozak, his second lowest total of the season.
Joffrey Lupul – 21 games (arm)
Matt Frattin – 11 games (knee)
The Leafs head to Boston for a Thursday night matchup with the Bruins at TD Garden.