An NHL team’s character can be forged in a number of ways.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have spent much of the current NHL season doing a lot of things right, but not having much to show for it in terms of standings points. They continued to put their collective nose to the grindstone Friday night, played a positionally sound, aggressive game against the visiting Detroit Red Wings and came back late to tie it, only to fall 2-1 in overtime.
One of these games, the Buds are going to be rewarded for their improved structure and performance. And that’s why, although Toronto head coach Mike Babcock and his charges know they’re in the winning business, they’re feeling good about themselves.
“I think our guys think we're playing right,” Babcock said. “I think our guys would tell you we’re doing lots of good things. I like what we’ve done. I like how hard we’re competing; I like how we’re executing. We gave ourselves a chance tonight. Let’s get on with tomorrow.”
“I thought we did a lot of good things out there,” said centre Tyler Bozak. “It was nice to tie the game up at the end, and I thought we had opportunities to win. Overtime’s tough, they’re going to get chances, and they made a good play, and he made a good shot.”
“We’re certainly headed in the right direction,” added Nazem Kadri. “That’s another prime example of working hard. The work ethic is definitely there, that’s another game we should’ve had, but you’ve got to commend the compete level. We came close, but that’s been the story so far.”
The Buds outshot the Wings 33-24 on the night and Detroit needed a banner showing from goalie Petr Mrazek to hold their lead. Just when it looked as if Mrazek was about to shut out Toronto, Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf scored his first goal of the year with 61 seconds remaining in regulation to send the game to overtime.
Wings defenseman Jakub Kindl scored 2:17 into the extra frame to give the Wings the win, but Leafs players understand the randomness of the 3-on-3 format and accept the back-and-forth nature of the League's new overtime wrinkle.
“I look at 3-on-3 almost the same as the shootout: it’s going to go either way, and both teams are going to have chances,” Phaneuf said. “They converted. We move on. I thought it was a big point for our team. We come back, get a point, now we move forward to Washington.”
“They’ve got a lot of fast, skilled guys,” Bozak said of the Wings. “There’s going to be chances both ways whenever you play that overtime, and they just got the chance first and made a good shot, so credit to them for that.”
Three-on-three is a significant adjustment for players used to scratching and clawing for every bit of ice they can get in regulation time, but Toronto’s best players with the puck are happy to get more opportunities in extra time.
“There’s a lot more ice, obviously, and it seems like you have a little bit too much time to think sometimes,” Kadri said. “For skilled players, it’s a treat, there’s nothing more you can want. But obviously you have to play the structure the right way. We just have to find a way at the end of games to kind of be able to turn it up one more notch and find a way to get the two points.”
“I think it’s exciting for the fans,” Phaneuf said of the 3-on-3 format. “We’re doing it to solve more games before the shootout. I agree with that. I don’t think points should be awarded in the shootout – no disrespect to the guys, it’s a great art, guys who score goals. But I think it should be decided before that.”
It was decided before the shootout Friday – and though the decision wasn’t in Toronto’s favor, they’re slowly getting to where they want to be.