While feeling the desperation of poor home performances, many dubbed this game a must win. A game that would make a statement. Well, the Leafs delivered a message, but not in the blowout fashion that you come to expect with a 4-0 scoreline.
This wasn’t a blowout, nor was it a perfect performance. It was a game played correctly.
“We just have to play smart with the puck, I think that’s key,” said James van Riemsdyk, who had a goal and an assist in the victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night. “We’ve got to defend well and obviously compete, but when you’re smart with the puck it makes it easier to do all those things. You’re not chasing the game when you’re not turning pucks over. That’s what we need to stick to.”
The Leafs carried the play in Buffalo’s end all night, dominating possession. But, as these things usually go, snapping out of a home funk wasn’t going to be easy. It took until the Leafs’ 29th shot on goal in the final minute of the second period, before Tyler Bozak had an answer for Sabres goaltender Michael Neuvirth.
“We felt confident after the first period of how we were playing and knew we just needed to keep playing like that,” Bozak said. “We knew one was going to go in eventually for us.”
Bozak’s tally snapped a five-game skid for the Leafs without registering a power-play goal. They certainly had their chances, with nine power-plays including a pair of 5-on-3 situations - an area that needs improvement going forward, according to head coach Randy Carlyle.
While some felt that pressure, the Leafs’ perennial goal-scorer played it cool. Phil Kessel scored early in the third period to make a 2-0 lead that seemed insurmountable, given that the Sabres mustered just 10 shots on goal. That’s right: An amount so low, it barely made it into double digits.
“I don’t know if there is pressure in a game like that” Kessel insisted. “What? We were we 3-4-1? Got ourselves back to .500 now and hopefully keep going.”
Kessel’s confidence never seems to waver. The Leafs improved to 4-0 this season when he has scored a goal. Adding to the confidence is the Leafs matching a franchise record with 10 shots against in a game, matching a franchise record set back on Jan. 5, 2002 in a 3-1 win over the Ottawa Senators.
Nearly lost in the performance, is the win for Jonathan Bernier. The Leafs netminder made 10 saves for his first shutout of the season, just a few nights after being pulled in the 4-1 loss to Boston this past Saturday.
When pressed if this was the easiest shutout of his NHL career, he had two words..."Probably, yeah.”
Still, it must be pointed out that Buffalo is facing their share of difficulties this season and the performance brought forth by them, wasn’t exemplary of an elite team in any shape or form.
Sabres fell to 2-8-0 this season, while Leafs head coach Carlyle is pushing for a better effort from his team this coming Friday.
“Now that you’ve been able to prove to us that you can play a game that we need to play, now our expectations are to carry that onto the next one,” Carlyle said of his post-game message to his players. “The easy part is, because we were able to do it one night, doesn’t mean the next night is going to be easy. Tonight everything fell our way and we’ll take it because we were in need of a drastic performance at home.”
On to the next one.