TORONTO - If the Maple Leafs are trying to forge a new identity under coach Randy Carlyle, consider the effort on Saturday night a rough sketch of what he’s trying to ingrain.
The defence that Carlyle has been preaching and teaching since taking over from Ron Wilson was evident, but there was no offence at the other end, and the result was a 1-0 loss against the Philadelphia Flyers in a shootout at the Air Canada Centre.
“You feel good to the point that we did not give anything up, but it does not feel good because we lost a point,” Carlyle said. “You feel like this is eventually going to turn in (the Leafs’) favour if you continue to play with the mindset of we’re not just going to be a rush hockey club.
“We have to create offensive zone time and get a cycle game going. It’s what we are really trying to sell to our group. Tonight, we did not turn the puck over nearly a fraction as much as we have done before.”
After Jonas Gustavsson, who has started all four games in goal since Carlyle was hired, made 27 saves through 65 minutes and the Flyers’ Ilya Bryzgalov stopped 29 shots, there was a single goal in the shootout. That came from Flyers star Claude Giroux, who put a nifty move on Gustavsson before roofing the puck over the prone netminder.
For the Leafs, Tyler Bozak hit the post in the glorified skills competition (in keeping with a recurring theme from regulation) and Bryzgalov made saves on Phil Kessel and Mikhail Grabovski.
The Leafs visit the Washington Capitals on Sunday afternoon, when they will try to make up some ground on the Caps, who hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Leafs have 68 points and are six behind Washington, but would have to jump past Winnipeg, Buffalo and Tampa Bay to move into a post-season berth.
It’s probably too late to salvage anything this season as far as the standings are concerned, but the effort against Philadelphia certainly provided a few building blocks for the Leafs. The Flyers, winners of eight of their past 11 games, didn’t have more than a handful of quality scoring chances. When they got them, Gustavsson was sharp.
His top save in regulation was on Max Talbot, who broke in alone while the Flyers were shorthanded but could not lift the puck over the goalie. A toe save on Jaromir Jagr (is he really 40?) in the third period also stood out.
Unlike other games this season, there was no bad goal, waiting to bite the Leafs, allowed by Gustavsson.
“It’s not like I feel like I am secure,” Gustavsson, bound to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, said. “I’m just trying to do something good every time I play. (Overall) I felt like we took a step in the right direction tonight.”
With some luck, the Leafs would have won for the second time with Carlyle behind the bench. But Clarke MacArthur hit two posts and linemate Nikolai Kulemin another as Bryzgalov ran his shutout string to 136 minutes 13 seconds.
In overtime, Bryzgalov shut his legs to stop Kessel on a breakaway.
While the team defence was improved, there’s a subtle change going on with the outlook in the dressing room as well. The Leafs would never acknowledge that they are out of the playoff race, but in Carlyle, they’re ready to play for a coach again.
If nothing else, it’s difficult to imagine that the work ethic in the final 14 games, including the next five on the road, will fall off.
“That was nice to see, that we did not give up,” said forward Joey Crabb, who scrapped with Wayne Simmonds in the second period. “A lot of times I feel like in the past we have got chances, and got close, but get frustrated and we come away from (the game plan) a little bit. We’re happy with our game, but frustrated we didn’t get two points.”