TORONTO - The Maple Leafs took the family picture in the morning, then closed their house for another season, unsure of who’ll be back next autumn.
With a string of messages to ‘thank you for being the most loyal fans in sports’, the Leafs departed the Air Canada Centre on the right note in Thursday’s final home game. The 3-2 overtime win saw Dion Phaneuf put a Phil Kessel backboard rebound past Dwayne Roloson with 59 seconds to go after Jake Gardiner tied it with his second goal in as many games on a bold sweep around the opposing net.
Ben Scrivens earned the win and gave the Leafs points in three straight starts, with the crowd holding off its recent abuse of the Leafs when they struggled, even doing the wave at one point.
“You want to have a positive impression on your fan base,” coach Randy Carlyle said. “It was good to see us battle back.”
With one game to spare, the Leafs got the year’s first winning goal from a defenceman, while for just the second time this season a blueliner scored in back-to-back games after Gardiner clicked in Buffalo. When the dressing room opened, club chairman Larry Tanenbaum was finishing a message of support to captain Phaneuf, who has felt the brunt of fan discontent.
“We’ve talked a lot about the past, but all our focus was on tonight, winning in front of our fans,” Phaneuf said. “We’ve struggled at home for awhile and we wanted to finish off the way we could.”
General manager Brian Burke and Carlyle have Game 82 to evaluate on Saturday in Montreal before getting into some serious spring house cleaning, though with limited free agents and trade options after Burke oversaw a fourth playoff failure, it will be a challenge. You can bet on hearing more strong vows about being a force on home ice in 2012-13, after a fifth straight season under 20 wins (18-16-7).
Thursday’s win meant the Leafs can’t finish last in the conference when they play Montreal, but aren’t yet out of the draft lottery. They did stall Steven Stamkos in his quest for 60 goals, holding him to 59 after his go-ahead tap in at 8:48 of the third period. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he would have been the third man to hit 60 at the Leafs’ expense, after Dennis Maruk of the Capitals in 1981-82 and Wayne Gretzky, as an Oiler, three years later.
The rookie Gardiner tied it at 17:05 of the third period. As in Buffalo on Tuesday, it was another daring solo sweep around the net while fighting off a check, this time helped by Brett Connolly’s deflection.
“Throughout the whole year (Gardiner) has made a lot of strides,” said Phaneuf. “What makes him so good is how he sees the ice and skates so well. When he skates, he’s a dangerous player. It’s really good to see.”
Scrivens’ record of 2-0-1 since Saturday was the best since James Reimer’s three-game win streak that preceded the February freeze. Scrivens made 30-plus saves for the second straight night and has stopped 103 of the past 114 shots. He atoned for his role in the team’s Tuesday meltdown in Buffalo.
“It’s a good feeling they had the confidence to go back to me,” said Scrivens, while pending UFA Jonas Gustavsson watched from the bench for perhaps his last time at the ACC. “It took until overtime, but it was a huge goal from Dion.”
Carlyle said the Leafs gave up 14 “critical area scoring chances” in the second period. Marty St. Louis had an easy goal to start the game, letting Brian Lee’s cross-crease pass bank in off his skate without a kicking motion. At the other end, Kessel’s drive for 40 goals was foiled a few times by the 42-year-old Roloson, once in the extra period on a great Gardiner set-up.
Just 43 seconds after the St. Louis goal, nice passes by David Steckel and Gardiner set up Tim Connolly’s 13th. That matched Connolly’s 68-game total with Buffalo last year in his 69th Leaf game, though it was expected he’d have had a bigger role than third line winger this season.
The Leafs used Cody Franson in a regular six-man defence rotation after Carl Gunnarsson’s season was ended by a separated shoulder on Tuesday. He was partnered by Gardiner, though both rode the bench in the middle period for a stretch when Carlyle detected some flaws.
Carter Ashton, obtained from the Lightning at the deadline for defenceman Keith Aulie, started the game for the Leafs, but saw his pointless streak reach 15 games.
The Leafs began the season with three consecutive wins at the ACC and ended with two, but until they sort out those long nights in between, they’ll be staying on the playoff sidelines.