The Maple Leafs’ first game of 2016 shared some similarities with many of their 2015 games – namely, an early deficit for the Blue and White, and a strong resolve by Buds players to keep the contest close – and by the time the final buzzer sounded Saturday night at Air Canada Centre, Toronto had its first win of the new year with an 4-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues.
“It’s definitely encouraging,” said Leafs centre Nazem Kadri, who scored his seventh goal of the year to help boost Toronto’s record to 15-15-7. “That’s a real squad over there. They’re a good team; they’re hard to play against. For 85 percent of the game, there really wasn’t much to work with. It was clogged up, and we just had to be patient. Luckily, it paid off.”
Neither the Leafs nor Blues found the back of the net in the first period, but after St. Louis star winger Vladimir Tarasenko scored his 23rd goal of the season at the 8:28 mark of the middle frame, Toronto winger James van Riemsdyk scored his 14th of the year five seconds after the ensuing faceoff to pull the Buds even.
The Leafs then took their first lead of the night 3:15 into the third on Peter Holland’s sixth of the season, and Kadri’s seventh of the year at the 14:05 mark gave the home side breathing room before Michael Grabner scored into an empty net with one minute left.
All in all, it was another example of the structure and tenacity Toronto has shown in its first year under head coach Mike Babcock.
“We feel like we’re playing a really good brand of hockey right now, and we know we’re going to be competitive every night if we play the way we’re supposed to play,” said Holland. “Babs does a great job of preparing us and making sure that we’re doing all the things right. There’s a confidence in this dressing room right now that we’re going to come out on the other end of the 60 minutes with two points.”
“We’ve been feeling better about ourself as time’s gone on, you earn the right to feel good about yourself, and today was a good win for us,” added Babcock. “They’re a good team, they play hard, they play right. So it was a good win for our team.”
Buds goalie Jonathan Bernier stopped 39 of 40 Blues shots for his fifth win of the year, and the win was Toronto’s second over the Blues – the Western Conference’s third-best team – this season. With the Leafs set to embark on a three-game West Coast road trip this week that takes them through Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose, Saturday’s win was a welcome outcome and another step forward as the Leafs focus on getting into the thick of the playoff race.
Small wonder their confidence levels continue to rise.
“We’ve just got to play our system,” Bernier said. “When we do, we’re very good. I feel like we’re playing well against West teams because they kind of play the system we’re playing right now. You just can’t give them too much, and you’ve just got to wait for their mistakes.”
“We’re consistently beating these good teams, and we’ve been great against the West this year,” added Kadri. “Every single game, it seems (we’re getting) better and better. The first month of the season was a bit of a glitch – we were still trying to learn the system and get familiar with everybody, the staff and players – but now things seem to be rolling a little bit better.”