TORONTO - Credit the shootout for two of the Toronto Maple Leafs' three consecutive victories that have them back in playoff position.
At 9-4, the Leafs have had better luck in the post-overtime skills competition than last year, when they lost all five they were in. But coach Randy Carlyle and his players are easily able to separate shootout success from performance in the previous 65 minutes.
"Very much so," Carlyle said. "Shootout is a game in itself, obviously."
What happens in the shootout stays in the shootout. But over the past four games, including a narrow loss in Washington, the Leafs have shown significant progress that goes beyond the final results.
"I think we're going in the right direction," defenceman Cody Franson said. "I think we've had a couple games in a row now where guys are understanding what it's going to take to win and how we have to play in terms of managing the puck and playing smart in those tricky areas of the ice in between the lines and competing every night, amongst other things."
Turnovers are still a problem, including one by Franson that led to a goal by Buffalo Sabres forward Matt Moulson on Wednesday night. But after Carlyle talked so often about his team improving its competitiveness, there's little question players have responded.
Since getting smacked 6-1 on the road by the Carolina Hurricanes, the Leafs have lost a one-goal game to the Capitals, won a one-goal game at the Boston Bruins and played to — and won in — the shootout twice.
"We feel good about the way that we've been playing," captain Dion Phaneuf said. "We want to keep ... playing the brand of hockey that we want to play and keep building the way that we have been playing because they're big points for us."
Unsurprisingly, first-liners James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel have led the offensive charge. During this four-game span, van Riemsdyk has three goals and a couple in the shootout, Bozak has three goals and two assists and Kessel has two goals and six assists as part of his most productive stretch since October.
But on Wednesday night the third line of Nikolai Kulemin, Peter Holland and David Clarkson chipped in with a goal, and defenceman Morgan Rielly also scored, thanks to work down low by the second line of Mason Raymond, Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul.
"It's always an advantage if you can get three lines providing certain levels of offence," Carlyle said. "We obviously know that Bozak, Kessel and van Riemsdyk have provided the bulk of the offence for this hockey club. ... (We knew) if we're going to have a chance for success we were going to have to spread some more minutes around."
Aside from just over three minutes of even-strength ice time for fourth-liners Colton Orr and Carter Ashton and just over seven in total for Jay McClement, Carlyle did that with the rest of his team against Buffalo. Kulemin, Holland and Clarkson have enjoyed two strong games in a row, which makes it easier for them to earn some trust.
For Holland, who has played up and down the Leafs' lineup and spent time with the AHL's Toronto Marlies, it's a matter of adjusting on the fly.
"It's not the easiest thing in the world to spark some chemistry right away with guys," Holland said. "It can be a little difficult at times, but you look forward to the times that it just seems to come together."
Things are seemingly coming together for the Leafs right now after what Lupul called an "emotional" victory in Boston and then a necessary one over the Sabres.
Asked if he and his teammates had turned a corner, Lupul hesitated to make that declaration.
"We'd like to think so, but there's been several times this year where we thought the same thing and then our play's kind of went backwards," Lupul said prior to Wednesday night's game. "We want to keep improving our overall play: penalty kill, holding on to leads, things that haven't really been going our way this year and I think we're starting to make strides in some of those things. ...
"We don't want to look exactly at wins and losses right now. What we're looking at it is our game as a whole and hopefully we can continue to get that better."
— Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.
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