Bozak leads Leafs to victory over 'Canes

Tyler Bozak had three assists Sunday night. (Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports)

Tyler Bozak had three assists Sunday night. (Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:35 PM ET

TORONTO - No matter how cold it gets outside at the Big House in Ann Arbor on Wednesday, the Maple Leafs have turned down the heat on themselves at the Air Canada Centre.

For all the problems they’ve encountered from U.S. Thanksgiving until Christmas, the New Year and the second half of the NHL schedule will arrive with a glimmer of optimism. With a 5-2 home win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday, the Leafs reached the 20-win mark, won in regulation against a playoff pursuer and recorded back-to-back wins for just the second time this month.

Jonathan Bernier, tuning up for the Winter Classic against the Red Wings, made 43 saves on the quick striking Canes. The Leafs can now enjoy a bit of the festivities leading up to Wednesday’s game with thoughts of catching Detroit for third in the division in January and putting more distance between them and the Eastern Conference pack.

After a team-record four shootouts, the Leafs were able to hold their lead on Carolina, always a pesky opponent that could have closed to within four points with a regulation win. Tyler Bozak returned from injury with a career high three assists as centre on the first line, two of them on Phil Kessel goals.

Yet the game was far from pretty. A combined four goals marked a defensive disaster for both clubs in the second period. Kessel’s second of the game was meant for winger James van Riemsdyk, who’d done a nice job changing his body position to start the rush, but Kessel’s shot hit defenceman Ron Hainsey’s stick first.

Barely a minute later, Nikolai Kulemin continued his more opportunistic play of late, jumping on a soft Carolina clear and drilling it past goalie Cam Ward. But that two-goal lead only lasted until a 4-on-3 Canes’ power play, with Justin Faulk’s shot hitting Cody Franson’s stick and sailing over Bernier’s shoulder.

The best chance of getting two points against a conference rival trumped any idea of resting Bernier for the Classic. Thus James Reimer sat a third straight game — a season high for him — and with Bernier’s play on Sunday, Reimer likely won’t get to use his Classic-themed goalie gear on Wednesday.

The return of Bozak re-united him with good pal Kessel and there was a goal for them to celebrate in the first period.

After a long dissertation regarding faceoffs by coach Randy Carlyle the past couple of days, including a lecture caught on 24/7, the Leafs were against one of the best teams in the league on the draw. But when it counted, Bozak out-dueled Jeff Skinner long enough for Kessel to get behind the Canes and send a quick shot from a tough angle that struck Ward’s glove and somehow went in.

“It’s an opportunity for you to start with the puck,” Carlyle said when asked about harping on the subject of draws before the game. “I’m all about being competitive and I believe our team has to be more competitive in those small areas, when there’s a 50-50 opportunity. We have to show more tenacity, more bite and when it comes down to it, more competitive spirit.

“That’s an area where our young players have to learn that when things aren’t going your way, you have to change it up. Don’t let the other guy feel he has an advantage on you.”

Less than 30 seconds after his goal, Kessel was sent in alone again, but Ward stiffened and denied van Riemsdyk on the rebound.

Bozak’s recovery meant Nazem Kadri returned to second-line duty between Joffrey Lupul and Mason Raymond. The trickle effect put Jay McClement with David Clarkson and Nikolai Kulemin, while Peter Holland replaced the demoted Jerred Smithson with Colton Orr and Jerry D’Amigo. That’s what the Winter Classic forward lines will look like, barring any further injuries.

Captain Dion Phaneuf put the exclamation point on the night with an empty net goal.


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