MONTREAL — To have hope that Game 82 at the Air Canada Centre on April 10 will mean anything, the Maple Leafs knew they had to give everything Thursday night.
They went overboard a few times at the Bell Centre, but didn’t go to overtime, holding off the Canadiens and staying on message in a 5-4 win. It cuts the playoff deficit to four points with 21 games to play and gives them a respectable record of 27-27-7, the first time they’ve been .500 in regulation wins-losses since Nov. 6.
“Psychologically, it’s big to get to .500, but now we can’t be satisfied with that,” coach Ron Wilson said as the music blared from the victors’ room.
Toronto used its game in hand to pass the Atlanta Thrashers for 10th spot, with Buffalo two points ahead and the Carolina Hurricanes two more up, just over the elusive post-season line. It sets up a crazy weekend where another win or two in back-to-back games against Pittsburgh and Atlanta could change general manager Brian Burke’s thinking approaching Monday’s NHL trade deadline.
The Leafs won Thursday without a goal from their top line of Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur, with their weak-link second line producing seven points, led by two-goal nights from Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak. Rookie James Reimer also survived three early goals and two third-period power plays to record his 10th win. He made 11 third-period saves in a game with 13 combined power plays. But Montreal almost came back from a pair of two-goal deficits.
“A wild game from the start,” Reimer said. “Four points out ... that’s pretty close. A month and a half ago, it looked pretty bleak. But we’ve been determined, we’ve had high-intensity practices and it shows on the ice. We want to get there and who knows, with hard work and a few bounces maybe we can.”
Bozak, a team-worst minus 21, had gone 14 games without a goal and a point, but hitched a ride with his hot winger Kessel, who now has six goals in five games. Bozak equalled his career high with a three-point night. He also made a key defensive play to stop Andrei Kostitsyn on what would have been the tying goal.
“I’ve gone through a lot of other slumps at various levels of my career, but it’s kind of tougher playing in the limelight in Toronto where you want to produce and help the team.”
No. 6 defenceman Brett Lebda rounded out the scoring with his first goal in 86 games, going back to the autumn of 2009. He’s down to his last strike with the Leafs, who are using him because they traded two blueliners this month. Lebda was a minus-16 coming in.
“That was a big goose egg for Brett,” Wilson said. “He was a plus-2 tonight. He has struggled, but he wants to be the answer. He keeps reading we’re going to get a defenceman, but he’s here and he has to get the job done. Maybe we don’t have to look for anybody in that spot.”
Canadiens coach Jacques Martin had to answer for the decision to sit star goalie Carey Price when he had shut out the Leafs in the previous two games at the Bell Centre and was denied the chance to become the first Hab to do it three times in one year in team history. Martin said he wanted to get Auld some work, but the latter was getting booed by his own crowd when Martin pulled him after Lebda made it 3-1 on Toronto’s ninth shot at 13:02 of the first.
It was still an auspicious start for the Leafs as captain Dion Phaneuf was in the box eight seconds in after a goalmouth scrum and he and partner Keith Aulie got out of whack on a Roman Hamrlik shot that struck something on its way past Reimer.
But Kessel needed just six seconds of a power play to start a Leafs roll. They were almost too stoked at the start, firing high and wide on Auld. But when they found their range, thanks to a pair of iffy penalties, they made it a short night for the starter. Bozak won the draw that Kessel eventually snapped in under the bar, using P.K. Subban as a screen. Hamrlik over-skated the puck behind his own end and Kessel ended up with a Gary Roberts-type goal, jamming it five hole.
With Price getting settled and the Leafs spending the first few minutes of the middle period in the box, goals by Mike Cammalleri and James Wisniewski pulled Montreal even. But Bozak moved the Leafs back in front with a wrist shot through heavy traffic, the kind of play the Leafs were harping on before the game.
“Getting to the net, staying at the net and winning those battles ... we talk about it all the time,” Wilson said. “Our players are saying the right things in the paper, they know they have to do it (on the ice).”
Kessel showed he can pass, too, with a nifty set-up to a wide-open Bozak for a 5-3 goal midway through the third, but Montreal stormed back with less than three minutes on a Max Pacioretty goal. Colby Armstrong and Fredrik Sjostrom did lots of dirty work to pin the Habs in the final minute and stop Price from being pulled.
“We hung in there,” Wilson said.
But it’s still a long way to April 10.