BOSTON – Minutes after leading the Leafs to a rare win over the Bruins at the TD Garden, winger Joffrey Lupul was thinking about coming home.
And the blue-and-white horde that awaits the return of the NHL playoffs in Toronto.
“I think it will be crazy,” Lupul said after a two-goal performance in a 4-2 Leafs’ victory Saturday night. “With the win tonight and with (the playoff wait) whatever it is, eight, nine years, I saw the videos of the other day of everyone crowded around Maple Leaf Square (outside the Air Canada centre).
“I’m really excited. I’m thinking about it already. It’s only 20 minutes after the last game but I can’t wait to get out Monday. Those fans deserve it. And hopefully the building’s crazier than ever.”
The Leafs return home for games Monday and Wednesday with the best-of-seven series tied at 1-1 after a rousing, full-blooded victory over the Bruins.
Toronto looked in over its head Wednesday in its first appearance in the post-season since 2004, a disappointing 4-1 loss that increased Boston’s home mastery over the Leafs to 12-1-1 in the last 14 meetings.
But the Leafs came out skating and hitting Saturday in a high-octane second game that was intense from the opening faceoff. Looking like a worthy playoff outfit, Toronto outshot the Bruins 12-10 in the first period and outhit them 22-10.
Toronto also got goals from Phil Kessel, a rare score against his former employer, and James van Riemsdyk.
Trailing 1-0 early in the second period, Toronto reeled off three unanswered goals before Johnny Boychuk cut the deficit to 3-2 at 10:35 of the third period with a point shot that went in off James Reimer’s glove and Tyler Bozak’s body.
The Boychuk goal cranked up the tension—and the noise. TD Garden was packed with 17,565—the Bruins’ 156th straight sellout—and they were into it.
Van Riemsdyk silenced the crowd with 3:07 remaining, when the big man managed to pull off a pirouette while parked in front of goal, spinning before putting the puck in off goalie Tuukka Rask for an insurance goal and a 4-2 lead.
It was a game that helped reaffirm the fifth-seeded Leafs’ self-belief after a poor end to the regular season and a wobbly opening to the playoffs.
“Tonight eliminated that doubt,” said Toronto coach Randy Carlyle. “When we play our game and skate off the puck and move it effectively, we can be a hockey club that can compete.
“We don’t make any other statement other than we can go out there and compete.”
Nathan Horton also scored for fourth-seeded Boston, which is no stranger to venturing into hostile territory. Winners of the Cup two seasons ago, the Bruins are battle-hardened.
“We know it’s going to be noisy,” Boston coach Claude Julien said of Toronto. “There’s going to be a lot of electricity in the air. But we have to face that.
“We’re the bad team coming in. What you’ve got to do is focus on your job and hopefully not let that kind of stuff throw you off your game.”
The playoff drought has been lengthy and painful to Toronto hockey fans, most of whom cannot afford to pay Air Canada Centre prices. It may be mostly Bay Street bankers face-painting for the most part, but the city will be buzzing outside.
Scalpers must be licking their lips.
“We’ve got the best fans in the National Hockey League so I’m sure they’ll be excited to cheer loud,” said Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf. “We’re happy with the way that we played tonight but we’ve got lots of work to do yet.”
Carlyle, while welcoming the expected home hoopla, has other things on his mind.
“It’s great that our fans are enthusiastic and all of the passion that our fans do demonstrate, we think it’s a great thing for our city,” said the coach. “But again we’ve got a job to do and we’ve got to focus, and the game’s won on the ice … We have to prepare ourselves to play a better Boston club on Monday, I guarantee you. They’ll be better than they were tonight.”
The hit count was 44-35 in Toronto’s favour. Boston held a 41-32 edge in shots. The Bruins won the faceoff battle 49-27.
While the Leafs excelled on the night, a gritty Bruins team refused to yield in a high-stakes game that delivered great entertainment.
Unlike the first game, Toronto moved the puck up the ice quickly and didn’t turn it over. The quick movement resulted in odd-man rushes that kept the Bruins off balance.
“We didn’t turn it over,” said Carlyle. “To me that was the biggest difference between tonight and Wednesday. We just didn’t self-destruct.
“We worked hard and we competed and we got a few breaks go our way. But again we know we’re in for a Boston Bruin hockey club that is going to force you to play the game up the walls. You’re going to have to earn everything you get and I’m sure they’ll be better on Monday night.”
Added Carlyle: “We were better obviously than we were Wednesday but (as) I said we didn’t have very far to go to get better because we were pretty bad.”
Plus Toronto’s best players played like it Saturday after going missing in action in Game 1.
“We bounced back,” said Lupul. “We’ve been doing it all year.”
The effort turned into goals in the second period. Unlike the first game, Boston scored first. But Lupul was quick to show his nose for goal as Toronto pulled ahead 2-1 after 40 minutes.
Things looked promising for the Leafs entering the third. Toronto was 20-2-1 this season when leading after the second period.
It didn’t take long to increase the lead as Nazem Kadri, after a Boston attack, found a streaking Kessel alone at the Boston blue-line and the mercurial Leafs star beat Rask on the breakaway after just 53 seconds for his first of the playoffs.
It was only Kessel’s fourth goal—and his first at even-strength—in 24 games against the Bruins since being traded to Toronto.
Both teams made changes for Game 2.
Boston replaced the suspended Andrew Ference with 19-year-old defenceman Dougie Hamillton while Rich Peverley, in place of Kaspars Daugavins, returned to action on the third line with Chris Kelly and 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr.
Hamilton, a Toronto native, was paired with 35-year-old Wade Redden. Captain Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg were split up, with Chara playing with Adam McQuaid and Seidenberg partnering Boychuk.
The Boston defence wasn’t as good with the changes.
Toronto inserted Matt Frattin and Ryan Hamilton at forward, dropping tough guy Frazer McClaren and Clarke MacArthur. Ryan O’Byrne and Gardiner came in for defenceman Michael Kostka (broken finger) and Jean-Michael Liles.
The yellow-and-black crowd was amped up from the get-go.
Boston’s honorary “fan banner” captain for the game was Jeff Bauman, said to be instrumental in helping authorities identify the Boston bombing suspects. Bauman, a 27-year-old Costco worker who lost his legs in the terrorist attack, was received like a rock star as he waved the Bruins flag from a wheelchair.
There was a frenetic opening with 3:38 worth of action before the first whistle. Carlyle shook up his line combinations, seemingly looking to free Kessel from the shackles of the hulking Chara.
“As far as keeping him (Kessel) away, well, some things we did did work for a while but they always have home ice and the last change,” said Carlyle. “They’re pretty good at getting Chara on and off the ice.”
The “Let’s Go Bruins” chant came seconds after the opening puck dropped, soon to be followed by the taunting “Kessel” refrain directed at the former Bruin.
On the ice, it was big boy hockey with hits galore. Every metre came at a price. Colton Orr sent six-foot-nine Chara—a lamppost of a man—flying with a hit in the Boston corner.
There were also mistakes. Gardiner almost gifted the Bruins a goal when he gave the puck up to Gregory Campbell, whose shot was stopped by Reimer. Then Bozak had a clean shot after a Boston blunder.
The opening goal came at 1:56 of the second period after Horton swept over the Toronto blue-line and dropped the puck to Milan Lucic. Horton continued onto the goal and Lucic’s shot went off first Horton’s skate and then Cody Franson’s leg into the net. The goal passed a video review.
Toronto answered quickly while Chara was serving a tripping penalty. Rask stopped Gardiner’s shot from the point but Lupul was parked in front and tucked the rebound in at 5:18—with just two seconds left on the power play—before either Bruin defenceman could close him down.
Toronto’s Nikolai Kulemin hit the post with a sweet backhand midway through the second period that flew over Rask’s shoulder.
Lupul put the Leafs ahead at 11:56 after an onrushing Frattin held off Seidenberg as he headed towards goal and managed to slip the puck across the crease over to Lupul.
Seconds later, Rask and defencemen McQuaid and Chara combined to make five—count ’em five—saves in a wild rat-a-tat sequence in front of the Boston goal. Reimer stuffed David Krejci at the side of the net on the ensuing rush.
“We gave up way too many rushes and they just used their chances and they scored goals,” said Seidenberg, who was minus-3 on the night.
Chara, the Bruins captain and chef warrior, finished the night at plus-2 after 36 shifts and 25:49 minutes played.
It was a back-to-back bummer for Boston fans, who saw their Celtics eliminated from the NBA playoffs at the same venue the previous night.