Here are five takeaways from the Maple Leafs’ 3-2 shootout win over the New Jersey Devils Thursday at Air Canada Centre:
Bozak’s game is evolving for the better.
The veteran centre had one of his better games this season, finding Shawn Matthias for Toronto’s first goal of the night, then scoring the game-tying marker (his 10th of the season) with 2:06 remaining in regulation to send the game to extra time. Bozak also won 24 of 30 faceoff draws, and his game has grown in his first year under head coach Mike Babcock.
“There’s no question he’s got really good hockey sense,” Babcock said after the game. “He knows how to play. I didn’t think he was very good in our first game after the (all-star) break, so it was really good to see him bounce back. To me, he’s improved defensively, drastically. He carries the puck more than he did, I think he’s harder to play against, I still think he can get way better, and be consistently competitive like he was tonight.”
“I think he’s playing well,” added winger and linemate P-A Parenteau, who scored the shootout winner. “He’s playing a good game defensively, too. It really helps us when he plays well like that. It’s been a good chemistry for me and him…and I really like playing with Tyler. We have great chemistry out there.”
Offence still not coming easily for the Leafs.
The Buds outshot New Jersey 14-11 in each of the first two periods, but if Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid wasn’t sharp, Toronto simply missed by an inch here or there on a number of shots to his glove side. In any case, the bottom line is NHL teams don’t often win when they don’t score more than once in any given game, and were it not for Bozak’s heroics late in regulation, the Leafs likely would’ve found themselves in the loss column.
Discipline was a problem for the Buds.
The Leafs haven’t been the most disciplined team in the League of late, and Thursday’s game was no different, with Toronto giving the visiting Devils seven power play opportunities. The Devils scored on their first chance, but the Buds’ penalty killers snuffed out the next six, giving the offence a chance to catch up. It was a key element in the win, which wasn’t pretty, but gives Toronto two straight victories.
“We took a few too many penalties again,” Bozak said, “but our penalty kill’s been great for us.”
“The boys battled hard,” added goalie James Reimer, who turned aside 32 of 34 Devils shots to improve his record to 10-8-6. “It was kind of a grind-it-out, muddy-the-track kind of a game, and we were able to stick with it for 65 (minutes) and it was a good win in the shootout. It’s good to be able to squeak games out.”
On Mike Babcock’s big night, his effect on the team is clearly evident.
Babcock was coaching his 1,000th career game Thursday, and the improvement of players such as Bozak was an indication of his impact on the roster in his first year with the team.
“It’s been a process,” Bozak said of life under Babcock. “He’s a lot different coach than what we’ve had, but it’s been awesome. It’s been really fun. He’s trying to make everyone a better player, and I think he’s doing a really good job of that. You can just see it day-in and day-out at practice even, how much better guys are getting and how much more confidence guys are getting.”
A good team effort was much-needed before a big road trip.
The Leafs will travel to Ottawa Saturday in the first game of a five-game road trip that also takes them through Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Chicago. Going into that trip with a loss would’ve made things tougher, but a two-game win streak has infused them with the type of confidence they’d built up through November and December.
“I thought (Bozak) played really well tonight, and honestly, I thought our whole team did,” Reimer said. “I thought we really outworked them.”
They’ll need to work just as hard, if not harder, to defeat desperate teams in Canada’s capital and out west.