When Peter Horachek stepped out to the podium to address the media following his first victory as interim head coach, he was wearing the ultimate token of team respect.
Prior to the season, the Maple Leafs went to Collingwood for some team bonding. During the excursion, they picked up a military hoodie from the facility with the Leafs logo and made it their "player of the game" token. It’s given out by the previous holder of the trophy and Leo Komarov felt that Horachek was the hero on this night.
And why not?
Through two games as bench boss, Horachek implanted a gameplan that stressed a commitment to defence - one that was preached all year - but Horachek and management finally got through during games on Wednesday and Friday.
“I definitely feel like that’s how we have to approach the game,” Horachek said after a 5-2 victory over Columbus. “It’s a harder to play that way, but that’s the way we need to play as a team that’s trying to get back to where it needs to play.”
Toronto built a 4-1 lead after one period of play. It was the first time in nearly 21 months that the Leafs scored four or more goals in the opening period.
The Leafs are no stranger to that goal differential, but how they handled it on this night was different.
No longer were they merely holding on, they battled and played the better game.
“That’s another area we know we have to be mature in, in closing games out,” said defenceman Cody Franson. “Even on that stretch where we were on that road trip. We had a lead, gave leads away and it’s up to us to be able to mature and play with the lead and play low risk hockey and force teams to earn what they’re going to get.”
“What happens is the guys start playing safe and start sitting back. Safe is not good way to play. Smart and hard is a good way to play.”
The Leafs were better from the breakout, to the cycle, to the forecheck. When they were pinned back, it wasn’t for long. When mistakes were made, there was the hustle to go back and make a correction.
One such example came from Morgan Rielly, who managed to chase down Nick Foligno on a breakaway and get enough of his stick to negate any shot on goal.
“It’s just one of those plays you just have to make,” said Rielly. “I’m just happy it stayed out.”
Earlier in the day, Brendan Shanahan addressed the team, much like he did with the media. He put the onus on the players to play better. It certainly seemed to have an impact.
“It’s time to buy in. It’s time to really come in and compete,” said Franson.
Only once before did the Leafs manage to play so well in every aspect of the game. It was a 4-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres, where they allowed ten shots, tying a franchise record for fewest shots against.
Moving Daniel Winnik to the top line seems to be emblematic of what the Leafs are trying to forge going forward. Doing whatever it takes to be aggressive on the forecheck, while keeping that commitment to play defensively.
Having Winnik play with Kessel may not pad Kessel's stats, but that’s not the point. It’s about improving and not resting on success.
“It’s tough to build off a game like this to say there are holes, but we know there are holes that we need to fix,” Winnik said. “There are still things in the D-zone I’m sure we can tighten up. Their D got loose a couple times on the blue line. If we tighten up in those areas we will limit the shots even more.”