TORONTO – As he does throughout most games, Randy Carlyle kept his arms tightly and tensely crossed on the Toronto bench as his team swiped another victory, now six in the first seven games this season.
"Every win is not going to be a work of art," he would say shortly after the finish of a 4-1 win against Minnesota.
Though not the least bit pretty in their performance, the Leafs (6-1-0) found another avenue for manufacturing victory, with special teams and sturdy net-minding the difference on this night. Without the puck for most of the evening, the Leafs were badly outshot 37-14, totaling just 30 attempts on the net compared with 68 for the Wild. They also dropped 62 per cent of the faceoffs.
But as has been the case in the opening weeks of a strong start, one with many incomplete victories, Carlyle couldn't harp too strongly on the negatives in light of his team ultimately finding success.
"It's hard to be critical when you're getting points," he said. "[But] we're not going to continue to accept what's happening. We have to find a way to mold this from a different angle. Our level of play has to increase. We were on the receiving end. You can't continue to play that way and expect to have success."
Perhaps most important to their success in the early going, special teams were a key point again versus the Wild.
The continually potent Toronto power play scored twice in three opportunities – Tyler Bozak and Mason Raymond with the goals – and now ranks as the third-best so far this season with a success rate of 33.3 per cent. Additionally strong once more was the penalty kill, also ranked third overall with an 89 per cent success mark, stymying the previously scorching Wild power-play on four of five attempts, including three of four in a penalty-laden first frame.
Raymond added an empty-netter and now, with four goals this season, is also tied for the team lead with eight points.
"I think the stats are showing it," said the 27-year-old of special teams. "There's no secret. At the end of the day, in my opinion, it's winning us games."
The coach agreed with his forward's sentiment.
"Timely goals on special teams make the difference in games like tonight," Carlyle observed.
Continued stability in goal also proved consequential, especially in light of 23-year-old Wild goaltender Darcy Kuemper yielding three goals on seven shots. Though not without flurries of noise in his performance, James Reimer managed to stop 36 of 37 shots in his first start since the home opener 10 days earlier.
He was busy throughout the proceedings, memorably stopping breakaway attempts from Mikael Granlund and Torey Mitchell in the middle period.
As one of the more prominent flaws in their performance as a team thus far, the Leafs remained far "too loose" in their defensive play against the Wild (more on this in Five Points) and were again sloppy with the puck. They have allowed an unmanageable 35 shots per game so far this season, good for 14 more on average than first-ranked Minnesota.
Such flaws have been masked with strong and timely goaltending, elite special teams and plenty of offence. Carlyle fears this will catch up with his team soon though, especially with far superior opponents from Chicago, Anaheim and Pittsburgh looming soon on the calendar.
"The message has to be delivered and framed in the proper way that you're not tearing them down," he stated of his approach in the days ahead. "Even though we're not playing the way we'd like to play, we're still finding a way to win hockey games. This is what the league is about. You're here to win. You can talk and describe and there's ample footage and there's ample evidence that we're not playing to the high enough level, but we're playing high enough to win hockey games."
Carlyle concluded his thoughts bluntly.
"The worry for coaches is that some night we're going to get our butt kicked playing like this."
1. Fighting the puck
Despite his 36 saves, Reimer wasn't entirely thrilled with his performance against the Wild, this in his first start since Oct. 5. "Honestly overall I wasn't that happy with my game," he said. "I just didn't feel that I was as sharp as I could've been in some instances. I was focused, I was intense, I was mentally in the right frame of mind, but I think just the rhythm of stopping pucks; I felt I could never get into that rhythm, I guess you could say, where things were sticking to me."
Reimer was hooked after yielding four goals on 21 shots in his previous start against the Senators. He improved to 2-0-0 lifetime against Minnesota. "It's like as a player when you feel you don't have your hands so then you chip the puck in and go to work," he continued of this most recent start. "That's kind of how it was for me."
Earlier in the day, Carlyle spoke to the decision of going with Reimer against the Wild, Jonathan Bernier making the previous three starts. "You try to balance and you try to do an assessment on performance of individuals and how our team has played in front of [the goaltender] and the chances that we're giving up and the quality of chances," he said. "And all those things go into the decision-making process along with number of games in a row. You don't want people to get stale. We have a decision to make based upon three or four factors."
The Leafs face the Hurricanes next on Thursday, to whom Reimer owns a 4-1-1 career record and .927 save percentage. Bernier yielded five goals on 31 shots in his last start, a 6-5 win against the Oilers.
3. Defensive improvements
Asked to pinpoint one needed improvement as it pertained to his team's defensive game, Carl Gunnarsson cited an area of will. "If I could pick one thing I would say we've got to win more one-on-one battles along the boards mainly," he told the Leaf Report before Tuesday's game. "Just have more, what would you call it, mental ability to go in there and you want to not kill a guy, but you really want to go in there and win that battle because not only are we talking about winning the game, but there's games in the game too and you want to win that one, every one-on-one battle that you can. I think we can be better at that."
4. Defensive improvements pt. 2
Questioned on the subject shortly thereafter, Carlyle added, "I just think overall we're too loose in the three zones. It's not so much as the winning of the one-on-one battles, I think it's the ability to step inside and be first on pucks; talk about team toughness and all those things, it's willing to take a check to make a play; stop on pucks instead of circling away; win your share of one-on-one battles; start with the puck more on face-offs. All those things are factors that go into improving your team play."
James van Riemsdyk sat out Tuesday's game with a mysterious upper-body injury. Carlyle wouldn't provide much in the way of details as to the injury, but noted that it did not occur during a game. Since the Leafs had the day off Sunday and the 23-year-old missed practice Monday, one would be led to believe that the injury occurred off the ice.
"We're surprised with what happened," Carlyle said without further explanation.
Morgan Rielly got his first extended look on the power-play, replacing Paul Ranger on the second unit with Jake Gardiner. The 19-year-old notched the second of his two assists there on the first of two goals from Raymond. Additionally garnering opportunity on the penalty kill was Nazem Kadri. For the second straight game, the 23-year-old received second shift duty, totaling 1:29 on Tuesday.
Now the number one faceoff team in the NHL, the Wild took 34 of 55 draws against the Leafs, who fell to fourth-worst overall at 44.7 per cent. Boasting a 52.6 per cent success rate in 2013, Tyler Bozak has notably fallen to 48.6 per cent through seven games. He won just 9 of 21 faceoffs against the Wild, owned mostly by Mikko Koivu.
68-30 – Difference in total shots attempts, widely favouring the Wild.
14 – Difference in average shots allowed nightly between the Leafs and Wild.
9-27 – Toronto power-play through seven games.
24-27 – Toronto penalty kill through seven games.
21:02 – Ice-time for Jay McClement on Tuesday, leading all Toronto forwards.
1:42 – Ice-time on the power-play for Morgan Rielly against the Wild.
"Every win is not going to be a work of art."
-Randy Carlyle on a 4-1 win over the Wild.
"I saw it just trickling over the line. It was a great feeling. I didn't know what kind of celebration I was going to do, but the crowd was up behind me. It felt really good."
-Lifelong Leaf fan Trevor Smith on scoring his first goal with the club on Tuesday.
The Leafs host Eric Staal and the Hurricanes on Thursday night.