TORONTO - In it’s own way, a 2-1 overtime win over the worst team in the Eastern Conference on Tuesday night might have been one of the Leafs’ most impressive of the season.
Stick with me on this.
Of course, it didn’t have the flash of 7-1 wins over Washington and Tampa in November, or the two big wins in Madison Square Garden. It didn’t have the emotion of a 2-0 shutout over Montreal to start the season or the big road win in Pittsburgh. But in a game that had it’s own element of desperation, the Leafs found a way to get an important two points.
They found a way to get James Reimer a victory, after three consecutive losses since returning from injury. Reimer did his part too, only facing 19 shots but making a couple big saves when the game was still tied 0-0 in the third.
They found a way to avoid a third consecutive loss, something that still hasn’t happened this season. And they found a way to get a win on home ice, even getting the usually dull Tuesday night gathering at the Air Canada Centre excited about it.
But most of all, they found the discipline to stick to their plan even as a scoreless game dragged on and on against an inferior opponent.
“Those are the games you have to win,” said Leafs forward Tim Connolly, the undisputed hero of the night with both Leafs goals. “Good teams win games like that. We’re trying to establish ourselves as a good team still.”
While you can argue that good teams shouldn’t have to go the distance against truly bad ones like Carolina, the way the Leafs did it had its own sense of accomplishment.
There was never a doubt who was in control, right from the opening faceoff. But the longer Carolina hung around, the more you sensed something bad was going to happen. The Leafs have come by that reputation honestly in recent years, but on Tuesday they showed signs that perhaps it is beginning to fade.
“We were controlling the speed (of the game), the shot clock, we just had to keep playing the way we were,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “We didn’t want to sell the farm to try to score a goal. We were patient and we scored with four minutes to go.”
Much was made pre-game about this being somewhat of a must-win affair for this time of the season. While that may have been an overstatement, games against Buffalo and Vancouver this weekend look much more enticing going in with a win rather than a third consecutive loss, which could’ve have been the case if Connolly hadn’t jammed in that loose puck 44 seconds into OT.
“If we’re feeling pressure the first or second week in December, we’re in a lot of trouble,” Wilson said. “The guys had a very professional approach to the game tonight. You wouldn’t know we were one of the youngest teams in the league by the way we played.”
Not to read too much into it, but with the three teams directly behind them in the standings splitting up five points in the standings, the Leafs are well aware of the room for slippage, even in mid-December.
“At this time of year, it might not be February or March yet, but any point you get now is one you can’t get down the road,” captain Dion Phaneuf said as his team held its ground for sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
“We can see the standings. We know how big they are.”