Every time the Maple Leafs have suited up against the Boston Bruins this season, they’ve come across as a fragmented group with little push-back against a bruising, physical hockey club.
But coach Randy Carlyle might have witnessed the beginning of a change on Saturday night, and eight games into his tenure behind the Leafs bench, hopes it carries over into the TD Garden on Monday evening.
“Everything you do and everything we do as a coaching staff and an organization is for the betterment of the team,” Carlyle told reporters on Sunday afternoon in Boston. “We have always stated (that players) play for the crest on the front, not for the name on the back.
“There are certain aspects of defending a teammate, and certain things that when you represent a hockey club, you want to make sure you are a united group. Those are great signs.”
Specifically, Carlyle was referring to the decision of Mikhail Grabovski to take on Ottawa Senators tough guy Chris Neil on Saturday after Neil tried to goad rookie Carter Ashton into a fight. But in the bigger picture, the Leafs have been performing with a lot more jam than they did under Ron Wilson before he was fired on March 2, and it’s an aspect that Carlyle wants to see grow.
“It’s the great mentality of one for all and all for one,” Carlyle said. “I know it’s an old saying in hockey, but when you breed that within and the group grasps that, it’s a huge step forward.”
There aren’t any lineup changes anticipated for the Leafs when they clash with the Bruins for the sixth and final time this season and goalie James Reimer will try to record his third win in as many starts after two near-shutouts.
The Bruins have won every match against the Leafs going away, save the most recent one, a 5-4 victory on March 6 in Carlyle’s Air Canada Centre debut.
Even if the Leafs finally beat the Bruins, who have won just six of their past 16 games, it probably won’t help their faint playoff aspirations much. The Leafs were six points behind the Washington Capitals, who visited the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday night, for the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
Just 10 games remain for the Leafs.
“It doesn’t matter what has happened here this season,” defenceman Mike Komisarek said. “What’s important is being in the right mindset. We need the two points desperately. We need to build some momentum and build off the positive things we’ve done here.”
The Leafs’ defensive responsibilities have become more focused with Carlyle running the bench and it will be interesting to watch how a Bruins team that is accustomed to taking advantage the visitors respond. It’s not to say the Leafs’ defensive warts have been cleared away, but they aren’t allowing bushels of scoring opportunities like they did in the past. And the up-and-down Reimer has been there to make the big save when it has been required.
Where Wilson couldn’t help himself from criticizing the goaltenders, Carlyle appears to be going out of his way to tread softly with his netminders.
“You can see he is feeling better about himself, and we as a hockey club have to keep those Grade-A quality scoring chances down,” Carlyle said of Reimer. “His responsibility is he has to stop the puck. He is the last line of defence and he has the greatest opportunity to have the largest impact.
“We just have to go in and play a complete hockey game. We know (the Bruins) are the Stanley Cup champions, we know the type of hockey they are going to play. They’re big and they are an aggressive team. We’re a skating team and we’re going to have to skate and try to make sure we don’t give the puck away in too many critical situations, don’t give the puck away in too many critical areas, keep things to the outside, and play a tough road game.”
BIG BAD BRUINS BAD NEWS
The Boston Bruins have used the Maple Leafs as their personal play toy this season, out-scoring Toronto 28-10 in five victories. Here’s a glance at each Boston triumph over Toronto in 2011-12:
March 6 @ Toronto: Bruins 5, Leafs 4
Randy Carlyle’s home debut as coach was marred by the loss of forward Joffrey Lupul, who suffered a separated shoulder when he collided with David Krejci. Rookie Jordan Caron paced the Bruins with career-high three points.
Dec. 3 @ Boston: Bruins 4, Leafs 1
The teams were tied 1-1 past the midway point of the second period until the Bruins’ Chris Kelly got the winning goal at 13:11. Boston added two goals in the third period and held the Leafs to four shots on goal.
Nov. 30 @ Toronto: Bruins 6, Leafs 3
David Krejci had three points as the Bruins ended November with a sparkling 12-0-1 record. Joffrey Lupul tied the game 2-2 seven minutes into the second, but Zdeno Chara got the go-ahead goal before Boston got three in the third.
Nov. 5 @ Toronto: Bruins 7, Leafs 0
Tyler Seguin recorded his first NHL hat trick in what remains the Leafs’ worst loss of the season. The Bruins had just 20 shots on goal but neither Ben Scrivens nor Jonas Gustavsson had much of a clue in the Toronto net.
Oct. 20 @ Boston: Bruins 6, Leafs 2
In their first road game after winning four of five at home, the Leafs scored the first goal of the game by David Steckel and the last by Mikhail Grabovski. But the Bruins dominated otherwise, with Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic recording three points each.