On a night when the Leafs honoured the troops, the team gave those who served our country the best gift of all: A win.
It was quite the dry spell: Toronto last tasted victory on Jan. 9. What followed was an 11-game winless streak that had many questioning when they’d snap out of the funk.
Learning a new system under interim coach Peter Horachek, the Maple Leafs found themselves playing a more defensive-minded game. An emphasis on possession had the team playing the “right way” but the offence was nowhere to be found. Bounces weren’t going their way. It had many on the outside questioning the resolve of the team.
In the end, the Leafs found a way out of the slump with a 5-1 win.
“You feel like some of those games we felt like we should've won and we did it to ourselves, so it was a great feeling to see the guys contributed,” Horachek said.
Just a day after candidly speaking out about his team’s play, James Reimer was thrust into a surprise starting role after Jonathan Bernier fell ill earlier in the day.
“Just a whole lot of negativity, that’s the natural feeling that is prevalent when things aren’t going well,” Reimer said of the vibe prior to the win. “It takes a lot of character and a lot of work in you to stay positive and hopeful and believe in yourself.”
Reimer backed up his words with a 31-save performance. He was 2.3 seconds away from a shutout when Oilers forward Luke Gadzic broke up the bid.
Before speaking to reporters, the coveted "player of the game" camouflage hooded sweater was waiting at Reimer’s stall. It had been in Horachek’s possession for 29 days after Leo Komarov gave it to him in honour of his first win as coach.
Reimer improved to 4-0-0 all-time against the Oilers, with a 1.74 goals against average, a .949 save percentage and one shutout.
Richard Panik opened up the scoring for the Leafs midway through the second period. Phil Kessel followed before Morgan Rielly scored a goal that will be on the highlight reel for quite some time, going coast-to-coast and beating Oilers netminder Viktor Fasth.
“You have to earn it. You can't just be doing that,” Rielly said, who weighed out the decision to pinch deep. “If it's not going to work, you've got to be a two-way guy. You have to (have) a whole lot of responsibility about it. That's what I'm trying to do and hopefully I can just keep trying to do it.”
Mike Santorelli and Peter Holland rounded out the scoring in the third period.
It’s one game and the Maple Leafs have a long way to go. They beat a team that has been struggling mightily all season long. But tonight, they will take it without focusing on any negatives.
There has been a lot of tape reviewed over the last 29 days. The issues were clear. The bounces went the way of the opposition.
“That feeling you get at the end of the game when you’ve battled for 60 minutes and you’re able to come out with a win, especially after the adversity we’ve faced, it’s a good feeling," Reimer added. “It’s a release and you feel really good about yourself."
Tonight is about feeling good, but the real work starts on Monday when the Leafs return to practice and try to build some momentum. That’s when they can begin to really put the funk of the past 29 days behind them.