ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Randy Carlyle could barely contain his relief after the Winter Classic.
The hype was gone along with the all-access HBO "24/7" cameras that followed the Toronto Maple Leafs everywhere for the past month.
"Finally, yeah," said the Leafs head coach. "It's been a long three weeks, that's for sure, with what's gone on with our hockey club and the way we've played, the inconsistencies that we've played to and the microscope that we've been under."
Carlyle and the Leafs are used to being under a microscope just by virtue of playing in Toronto. But an inside look at the stretch in which they lost seven of nine games turned up the pressure even higher.
"There are lot of things that are going on inside that are hard to deal with when you're always constantly under a camera or a microphone (is) under you," Carlyle said.
But after beating the Detroit Red Wings in a shootout in front of an NHL-record crowd of 105,491 freezing fans at Michigan Stadium, those trials and tribulations could feel like a distant memory. Led by goaltender Jonathan Bernier, the Leafs have won three games in a row and have added a little vitamin C to their game.
"We've talked a lot about consistency and making sure to work on our game to become more consistent," captain Dion Phaneuf said. "I feel that we've played some good hockey the last little bit. We're trying to keep building it because we know that's been something that's plagued us a little bit. We feel better about our game right now."
A large part of that has to do with Bernier, who has stopped 181 of 190 shots put on him since relieving James Reimer on Dec. 21. He's 3-0-2 in that time, and Carlyle acknowledged it would be "foolish" to turn away from him now.
"Jonathan Bernier has come in and given us a chance and given us an opportunity in games, and that's what we are looking for," the Leafs' coach said.
It's not all Bernier because goals have to come from somewhere. In the Winter Classic they came from the top line of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel.
This was the second game with that trio reunited, as Bozak returned Sunday after missing almost a month with a strained oblique. Bozak had three assists in his first game back and then a goal and the shootout winner in the Winter Classic.
"I think that I was able to play one game before, it was huge for me," Bozak said. "Definitely would have been crazy, just coming back into this game. So I think being able to play the one before really helped me a lot."
Having Bozak back also helps the Leafs, in general. His chemistry with Kessel and van Riemsdyk is undeniable, and his presence shifts Nazem Kadri, Peter Holland and Jay McClement back into more comfortable roles down the lineup.
"Tyler is a player that our coaching staff trusts, pretty simple," Carlyle said. "When coaches trust people, they put them in situations where you believe the player will get the job done."
Carlyle went so far as to call Bozak a "model for the younger players to follow."
"He gets inside, he wins his share of one-on-one battles, very strong in the faceoff circle, and he's got the hockey sense," Carlyle said. "The puck follows him around."
Puck possession is one thing the Leafs could stand to improve on Saturday against the New York Rangers and beyond. They were outshot 43-26 by Detroit in the Winter Classic, as Red Wings coach Mike Babcock praised his team for holding on to the puck for much of regulation and overtime.
But as the Leafs have done much of the year, they pulled out two points despite being badly outshot. Opportunistic offence and strong goaltending allowed them to reach playoff position early and hang on despite some struggles, so it was only fitting that helped them win the NHL's signature regular-season event.
The Winter Classic represented the end of a difficult journey for the Leafs, who made the most out of the spotlight in the end.
"It is a lot leading up to it. I think it's tough on the players, it's tough on the coaches," general manager Dave Nonis said. "But I also think that it created an atmosphere that made it more than just a game. I think both teams raised their level of play. I know our team did. I think that's the hardest we've competed for a long time.
"When you look at over 100,000 in the building, it's impossible not to play harder."
Seeing how hard and well the Leafs played gave Nonis some fuel to be optimistic about the near future.
"From our standpoint I hope it's, I wouldn't say a turning point, but maybe the genesis of consistent games where we work hard for three periods," he said.
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