DENVER – Even a six-game win streak isn't enough to ease the nerves of a head coach.
“Coaches never breathe easy,” said Randy Carlyle with a chuckle after his team pulled out an unlikely 5-2 win in Colorado.
Make it six straight for the Maple Leafs, who despite the challenges of the blistering Avalanche – one regulation loss in the previous 10, thin air of the Mile High City, and third game in four nights, managed to overcome with two points in the second tilt of a four-game road trip.
The primary components of the win streak stood tall yet again.
There was more terrific goaltending, this time from James Reimer, who stopped 35 of 37 Avalanche flurries. There was continued dominance from Phil Kessel, who extended his wild point streak to seven games with a pair of goals. There was another quick strike in the opening frame. And there was another fine special teams outing, the Leafs scoring again on the power-play while halting a scorching Colorado man advantage in all four opportunities.
Sunny times roll on in the dead of winter for a once victory-challenged squad.
“There's a lot more life in the room,” said Dion Phaneuf after the latest victory. “We've got a confidence in our dressing room right now that we feel good about ourselves. And that's a good feeling for a team.”
It's been eight years since a Toronto club won six in a row, the last run coming during the 2005-06 season. This streak was especially unforeseen considering how dour the scene looked less than two weeks earlier and really for the better part of the season.
The Leafs had just four wins in regulation during a stretch of two months and had dropped four consecutive games in the early days of 2014, including a pair of disastrous blowout losses to the Rangers and Hurricanes.
But from those ashes has risen an unlikely string of victories – including four in regulation in this run alone – some good fortune aligning with good goaltending, strong special teams and elevated performance from some of the team's top guns, notably Kessel and the top line.
“It was a tough stretch,” said Kessel, who has 26 goals on the year, “but we stayed positive and we fought our way out of it and we're on a pretty good roll right now.”
1. En Fuego
About the hottest he's ever been as an NHL player, Phil Kessel added two more points to a scorching seven-game point streak. Kessel, who scored twice against the Avalanche and now has goals in four straight games, has six goals and 14 points during the sizzling run.
“He's a mutant almost,” Morgan Rielly beamed to the Leaf Report during Tuesday's game. “He's just scoring. He's getting points. He's happy. He's flying around out there so it's been great. He's one of the top players in the world and he's proving it.”
Kessel managed the two markers, but could have ended up with three or four considering the dozen or so opportunities he had on this night. He scored his first on a breakaway, beating Semyon Varlomov far-side, adding another on a rebound opportunity.
“What did he have like 12 shots on goal tonight,” van Riemsdyk said of his linemate, who managed eight shots. “It was pretty incredible the display he put on.”
“I could've had a bunch tonight,” Kessel agreed. “I missed some good chances.”
2. Scoring First
With the first of two goals from Kessel – a stretch pass from Dion Phaneuf feeding the winger – Toronto scored first for the fifth time during their rare six-game win streak, a point of emphasis for a team that's been outscored in first periods all season.
“That was a big thing we've been keying on is having better starts,” said Tyler Bozak on Tuesday morning. “When you get that first goal the odds say that you've got a way better chance of winning so that's something that we want to do as much as we can.”
Scoring first against the Avalanche was especially important. Colorado entered the night with 25-1-3 record when they landed the game's first goal. And though the Leafs didn't exactly storm out of the gate – they were being outshot 11-2 at one point, no doubt stung by the altitude – they did manage to hang in, mostly due to the early efforts of James Reimer.
“Reims stood tall for us,” said Carlyle of Reimer, who won his second straight start. “That's what we're asking of our goaltenders. When you get a chance to get in there give us what you can … Give us goaltending that you can hang your hat on.”
3. No Fly Zone
James van Riemsdyk took hold of the team lead with his eighth power-play goal of the
year against Colorado, redirecting yet another Cody Franson point shot beyond Varlamov for the Leafs second goal.
“JVR's got a no-fly zone,” Franson chirped afterward. “Put it in a certain airspace it's going down.”
van Riemsdyk has proven adept at the tactic of tipping pucks, a skill-set he began practicing on the driveway of his home as a kid. That practice picked up when he reached the NHL in Philadelphia. Flyers assistant coach Joe Mullen helped the former University of New Hampshire star formulate a daily routine for working on it. And now at the end of just about every on-ice workout, the 24-year-old does exactly that.
“I owe a lot of that to him because he would hammer away some slappers at me every single day,” said van Riemsdyk of Mullen. “And then I'd have Chris Pronger breathing down my neck, getting me out there before practice sometimes doing it. I've worked on it a lot over the years. It comes a little bit more naturally thanks to those guys.”
4. Offence from the D
The Leafs stable of defenders barely made a blip on the offence in the opening two months of the season – just three goals in the first 28 games.
Since that point, however, they've offered a much greater contribution.
The group had scored at least a goal in four consecutive games before Tuesday, totaling 17 on the year and a hearty 14 in the past 24 games. And though they didn't find the scoreboard against the Avalanche they did manage to aid in the attack. A pair of point shots – one from Franson on van Riemsdyk's 20th of the season and one from Jake Gardiner on Nazem Kadri's 13th this season – were redirected for goals.
“Our job is to get the puck through or make plays with it up top,” said Phaneuf, who sits second on the team with 20 points this season. “Our forwards have done a really good job down-low of getting us the puck and giving us some time and moving it quickly up to us [at the point]. We've been able to get some pucks through with some good screens and when you do that you generate chances and that's what we've had success with.”
5. Lead Protection
Third period lead protection has been a recurring struggle for the Leafs this season – they've been outscored 61-42 – and one that's been tested amid the win streak.
Just a night earlier in Phoenix, the club had some difficulty protecting a big lead in the final frame – lackadaisical at times, according to Carlyle – before pulling out an eventual win. Again on Tuesday they were tested, but after a quick goal from Nathan MacKinnon, which closed the gap to 4-2, the club gradually found its bearings.
“Hopefully this is a sign of growth for our group and we can continue to go forward,” said Carlyle.
“They've got a lot of offence,” Phaneuf said of the high-powered Avalanche. “They're coming with four guys the whole time. We gave up some chances, but really we kept a lot of it to the outside. And when they were coming they obviously were pushing when they're down by as many as they were. We did a good job holding them off.”
Bonus Point – Man Advantage
Now ranked third in the NHL, the Toronto power-play struck for the seventh time in the six-game win streak. The unit has sizzled with a 31 per cent success rate during the run (7-23).
7 – Consecutive games with a point for Phil Kessel, who has six goals and 14 points in that span.
4 – Consecutive games with at least a goal for Kessel.
.930 – Even-strength save percentage this season for James Reimer, tied for sixth-best among NHL netminders with at least 20 starts.
4 – Consecutive games with a point for Nazem Kadri, who has two goals and six points in that span.
8 – Shots on goal for Kessel on Tuesday, a season-high.
19 – Points in the past 16 games for Tyler Bozak, who had two assists against Colorado.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 22.9% (4th)
Season: 77.8% (27th)
Quote of the Night
“JVR's got a no-fly zone. Put it in a certain airspace it's going down.”
-Cody Franson, on James van Riemsdyk's redirection abilities.
The Leafs continue their four-game road swing in Dallas on Thursday night.