TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs can only wonder how differently things might have turned out if Darcy Tucker had played this well all season.
The veteran winger scored his second goal of the game 3:39 into overtime on Saturday to give the Maple Leafs a 4-3 victory over the Boston Bruins.
Perhaps no player better embodies the team’s disappointing year than Tucker, who battled injuries early on and is just now rediscovering his scoring touch.
He admits that it’s often been difficult to drive to the rink.
“I can’t think back to a longer period of time when I struggled to produce,” said Tucker, who has five goals in his past five games. “That was tough to go through … It’s great to score goals and you want to win hockey games and do it together as a group.
“It’s tough reading the papers every day and knowing that we have let down a lot of people in different ways. That wears on you after awhile.”
The victory lifted the Leafs out of the Eastern Conference basement but they’re still nine points back of Boston for the last playoff spot.
In other words, it probably won’t change the way things unfold ahead of the Feb. 26 trade deadline. The Maple Leafs have four games to play before then and it’s very likely that the team will look a bit different afterwards.
Tucker acknowledged that it’s a tough time of year as the players wait to see what happens.
“When you’re part of a hockey club and you have friends and people that you battle with … it’s difficult,” he said.
Still, each player is paid to work as hard as he can and many in the Leafs dressing room still believe the team can make a late charge.
“You never know if we can get on a little bit of a roll here,” said captain Mats Sundin. “We’re going to play a lot of teams that are around us in the standings the next little while. Hopefully we can build on this win here.”
Dominic Moore and Nik Antropov also scored for Toronto (24-27-9) while Dennis Wideman, Glen Murray and Zdeno Chara replied for the Bruins (29-23-6).
The game was about as joyless as they come for a sellout crowd of 19,481 at Air Canada Centre until Tucker took over late in the third period.
He converted a cross-crease pass from Sundin at 14:18 during a 5-on-3 power play to tie the game 2-2. Less than two minutes later, Tucker fooled Boston netminder Tim Thomas by skating behind the goal and leaving the puck for Antropov, who scored his 20th of the season at 16:09.
Chara tied the game 3-3 with 49.8 seconds to play in the third period before Tucker scored the overtime winner. He charged hard to the goal and tipped an Alex Steen pass by Thomas.
That ensured that this night would end much better than so many before it.
“I’ve had a lot of nights that I’ve went home and couldn’t sleep, wondering when (he was going to start scoring),” said Tucker. “I remember last year travelling to the rink on a nightly basis and you know it’s just going to happen – you know you’re going to play well and feel good about your game.”
Some solid play from goaltender Vesa Toskala was one of the reasons Toronto had a chance to make the late comeback.
Toskala was shelled right from the opening faceoff by a Bruins team that looks to be in a battle for a playoff spot that could go right down until the last weekend of the season.
Boston had several good chances early and held a 9-1 advantage in shots when Murray opened the scoring at 5:48 of the first period. He beat Toskala short side with a quick wrist shot from the right circle.
They continued to pore it on but the Finn kept them from building a bigger lead.
“It was a little bit crazy in the first 10 minutes,” said Toskala.
Moore tied the score at 10:32. The Leafs centre managed to find the puck during a scramble in front of Thomas and flipped it over the sprawled goalie.
Bruins coach Claude Julien believes this game was lost during that opening 20 minutes.
“I thought in the first period we should’ve been able to establish a better lead than we did,” he said. “We had some Grade A opportunities where we should’ve scored, two, three goals.”
Added Murray: “You’ve got to give it to Toskala. He kept them in the game when we had a lot of good scoring chances. We should’ve had a 2-0, 3-0 lead coming into the second, but it was 1-1 and they took it to us in the second period.”
Even though Toronto controlled much of the middle frame, Boston took a 2-1 lead to the dressing room after 40 minutes. Wideman scored at 18:36 on a power player by floating a long wrist shot past Toskala.
But Tucker came through late to help the Leafs pull out the victory.
“It’s great to see him playing the way he is,” said Sundin.
Notes: Steve Moore was shown on the scoreboard during the third period. …Toronto is 9-20 in one goal games this season …Referee Bill McCreary was honoured before working his 1,500th career NHL game … Toskala has started 16 of the last 17 games for Toronto … Maple Leafs backup goalie Andrew Raycroft appeared in 108 game for Boston between 2000-’06 …The Leafs have sent forward Robbie Earl back to the AHL Marlies.