TORONTO – The Maple Leafs are winning sloppy so far this season.
“Coaches aren’t here to cut up wins. Let’s not over-analyse,” Toronto coach Randy Carlyle said after a 5-4 shootout win Saturday over Ottawa in the Leafs’ home opener. “We didn’t play to the level we’re capable of playing. It was more a hockey game, I think, we played in parts and we were sloppy throughout it but we still found a way to get two points.
“So we’ll take that and move on.
Toronto (3-0-0) will likely move forward with Jonathan Bernier in goal after the former Los Angeles King was rock-solid in relief of James Reimer.
Bernier, who came on midway through the second period with Toronto down 4-2, stopped Milan Michalek—whose shot hit the crossbar and bounced out—and Jason Spezza in the shootout.
Mason Raymond, on an nifty turnaround backhand, and Tyler Bozak, through Craig Anderson’s legs, scored in the shootout to give Toronto the win.
Carlyle had started Reimer, the incumbent, in the season opener in Montreal and then switched to Bernier the next night in Philadelphia.
Reimer got the nod against Ottawa for his 8-1-1 career record against the Senators. But on Saturday he had a difficult night with little help from his defence.
“It was a tough one,” said Reimer. “I felt that I was hanging in there, making some good saves. But a couple of pucks slipped by somehow. Some bad luck maybe. But at the same time as a goaltender, you’re the last line of defence so you’ve got to be there and you’ve got to find a way to keep the puck out of the net.”
The Leafs were an adventure in defence with Reimer. But Bernier added instant stability and looked imperious in stopping all 15 shots he faced plus another two more in the shootout.
“There wasn’t a lot of extra rebounds hanging around,” Carlyle said of Bernier. “When he made the save, the puck was either in his glove or he was able to freeze it. He controlled the puck, which allowed us to box out. There wasn’t so many wild scrambles around the net. Hat’s off to him.”
Bernier said he just wanted to “make that first save and feel the puck a little bit and get into the game.” He also took time to praise Reimer, saying he had fallen victim to some unlucky bounces.
On Friday, Carlyle said his decision on who to start against Ottawa was “made a long time ago.”
It’s probably safe to say his decision on Tuesday’s starter against Colorado was made Saturday night.
“It makes it easier,” he said of the goalies’ performances against the Senators.
Raymond, Nazem Kadri, Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk scored for Toronto, which combined a fluid offence with a leaky defence.
Kyle Turris, Cory Conacher, Jared Cowen and Spezza scored for the Senators (1-0-1), who got another big night in goal from Anderson, and probably deserved a better fate.
“We come on the road and get three of a possible four points, had the lead at 4-2 halfway through the game so, yeah, we can take that out of the game,” said Ottawa coach Paul MacLean. “The way we played over the course of the 60 minutes, much like last night, we can take the good, throw out the bad and get on with our season.”
The Senators were playing their second game in as many nights, having spoiled the Buffalo Sabres’ home opener with a 1-0 win on Friday. The start of the schedule has not been kind to Ottawa, which plays its first six games away from home.
Toronto outshot Ottawa 42-36 through overtime in continuing its unlikely unbeaten start. The Leafs are doing it without the suspended David Clarkson and with injuries to Nikolai Kulemin and Mark Fraser.
Both teams had chances to win late in regulation, with the Leafs either unable to beat Anderson or find the target.
Toronto had a 42-second power play to finish overtime after Dave Bolland was hauled down by Cowen. But Toronto failed to take advantage.
The Leafs went 2-for-6 on the power play while Ottawa was 0-for-1.
The Senators got good value from their second line of Turris, Conacher and ex-Leaf Clarke MacArthur on the night. They combined for two goals and three assists and together were plus-eight.
Toronto had the first goal but Ottawa scored four of the next five before the Leafs pulled one back on each side of the second-period intermission.
Toronto cut the lead to 4-3 on a slick wrist shot by Lupul on the power play at 19:43 of the second. Van Riemsdyk then tied it up at 2:52 of the third after a speeding Phil Kessel found him with a laser-like pass at the side of the crease.
Carlyle’s carefully considered goalie rotation strategy went by the boards midway through the second period when Bernier replaced Reimer with the Leafs down 4-2 after giving up two goals in 15 seconds.
Reimer had gotten the nod over Bernier by virtue of his stellar career record against the Senators: with three shutouts in 10 games, a 1.69 goals-against average and .949 save percentage. Bernier had never faced Ottawa before.
The crowd of 19,552 was chanting Bernier in the third after Sens forward Bobby Ryan toppled over the net from behind and landed on top of him.
It was also a tough regular-season debut night for Leafs rookie Morgan Rielly, who along with defensive partner Cody Franson, was on the ice for the Senators’ first three goals.
For the 19-year-old Rielly, it was a bumpy, high-profile beginning—under the Hockey Night in Canada spotlight after being a healthy scratch the first two games.
“As the game went on, he got better,” said Carlyle. “We got to see more of what he’s about.”
He and Franson were each minus-3.
The 48th Highlanders Pipe and Drum Band kicked off the night, a Maple Leaf tradition that is old-school as they come. The rest of the opening ceremonies for the franchise’s 96th home opener was decidedly more modern with fans wielding free glo-sticks and Leafs players skating onto the ice to pounding music through a giant Maple Leaf flashing their names.
Outside Air Canada Centre, fans watched on a big screen from Maple Leaf Square in a scene reminiscent of the team’s playoff run against Boston last season.
The game was tied 2-2 after 20 minutes, following a loose Leafs’ defensive performance that ended with Carlyle looking up at the clock and clenching his arms in front of him like he had a bad stomach ache.