|Maple Leafs Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski celebrate Kulemin's overtime game-winner against the Boston Bruins on Tuesday night. (Stan Behal/TORONTO SUN)
As masterpieces go, it looked a bit like fridge art.
But, with victories so scarce, Nikolai Kulemin, Luca Caputi and Carl Gunnarsson combined on what felt like a genuine Picasso.
The Maple Leafs missed open nets, they failed on the power play and Phil Kessel remains snake-bitten against his former club. But none of that mattered after Kulemin scored with 50 seconds left for a 4-3 overtime win over Boston.
Caputi, making his Air Canada Centre debut scored the tying goal, Gunnarsson was a threat much of the night joining the rush and somehow the Leafs picked up the pieces of a fractured game. Mostly, they never quit, coming from behind three times.
“I didn’t think we had a good first period. We weren’t skating. We were tentative,” said coach Ron Wilson, as Toronto trailed 1-0 after one period and had just 13 shots after 40 minutes. “But the second (period), once we scored, it seemed to relax us and we started to use our speed.”
Patrice Bergeron gave Boston its third lead, 3-2, three minutes into the third. But then Caputi made his ACC debut as a Maple Leaf a treasured moment. He’d started the game with a thrill, lining up against Mark Recchi for the opening faceoff.
“I like to do that with the young guys. At least you get the parents on your side for a couple of weeks,” Wilson said, eliciting some rare laughter from the usually sombre Leafs post-game briefing. “You get a letter from their moms ...”
Caputi, standing on the edge of the crease watched as Bruins’ netminder Tim Thomas couldn’t squeeze a shot from the halfboards. As the puck slithered through the crease, he swept it into the net for his first goal as a Leaf.
“I haven’t got it (the puck) but I’ll track it down. For sure I want to keep that one. It’s great to get the first one,” Caputi said. “I made some mistakes tonight, but I stuck with it and I’m happy we got the win. I’ve dreamed of this, making my debut here.”
In overtime, Mikhail Grabovski was robbed by Thomas midway through but the Leafs kept pressing and with 50 seconds left Kulemin bulled his way to the crease, driving home the winner.
“He’s played really well. Overall, he’s probably our best forward,” Wilson said of Kulemin, who also outmuscled a Bruins defender for the puck deep in the Boston zone to set up Gunnarsson’s second-period goal. “He finishes checks. He’s a big body. He doesn’t have great hands, so sometimes he fumbles the puck away. But his brute power going to the net really helps.”
The Leafs almost won it in regulation. Phil Kessel, goalless in five games against his former team, was foiled on a breakaway with 4:16 to play. Thomas stopped him again two minutes later on a break-in from the blueline.
The Bruins have a mere six wins since a disastrous January, when they won three times. Consider the Leafs won just as many and blew up the roster.
“We’re a young group,” said Caputi. “If we prove we can win in the last 16 games we can build a core here. We want to have an impact on the playoff picture.”
Mission accomplished. At least, for one night.