TORONTO – Just like after previous home victories, “We Can’t Stop” by Miley Cyrus blared from the Toronto Maple Leafs’ locker-room.
The victory song that became synonymous with a season of good fortune was the same, but after beating the Calgary Flames 3-2 on Tuesday night the mood was much more relief than happiness. The result snapped a streak of eight straight regulation losses to keep the Leafs’ slim playoff hopes alive.
“It feels like a lot of weight lifted off of our team,” captain Dion Phaneuf said. “We can feel good about ourselves because we won this game.”
The Leafs allowed themselves to feel good by picking up their first points since beating the Los Angeles Kings on March 13. They improved to 82 with five games remaining and passed the Washington Capitals (81, six games left) but still trail the Detroit Red Wings (84, seven games left) and Columbus Blue Jackets (83, seven games left) in the Eastern Conference wild-card race.
Catching either the Red Wings, who play the Boston Bruins on Wednesday, or the Blue Jackets, who blew a two-goal lead and lost in overtime to the Colorado Avalanche, remains a daunting task. But for Toronto (37-32-8), any victory represented a confidence boost.
“It’s been a long time. It’s been too long,” coach Randy Carlyle said. “You hope that you can build on it, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves because we didn’t paint a Mona Lisa here tonight.”
In getting goals from Jay McClement, Dave Bolland and then the game-winner from David Clarkson, the Leafs managed to prevent what would’ve been their first stretch of nine straight regulation losses since 1967, the last time this franchise won the Stanley Cup.
“We were flat for a big part of that game and gave up three rush chances,” said ex-Leafs forward Matt Stajan, who scored his 13th of the season for the Flames on a breakaway. “That’s how that team scores goals. You could say they got a bounce on the one. I’m guessing they haven’t had many bounces the last month so we’ve just got to be better.”
A loss of any kind to the Flames (31-38-7) would’ve been devastating to a team that knew it would have to run the table and get some help just to give itself a chance. Step 1 was beating the Flames.
“It beats losing, that’s for sure,” said defenceman Cody Franson, who set up McClement for the game’s first goal 50 seconds into the second period.
Anything beats losing for the Leafs, who not too long ago were in second place in the Atlantic Division before going into this free fall that saw them lose to the Capitals, Red Wings, Tampa Bay Lightning, Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils, St. Louis Blues, Philadelphia Flyers and then Detroit again.
Calgary didn’t make it nine despite goals from Stajan and defenceman Kris Russell. Goaltender Karri Ramo stopped 19 of the 22 shots he faced.
“I don’t think we got outplayed,” Flames coach Bob Hartley said. “It’s just they got one goal more than us. They were opportunistic at the right time and we got our chances late and we couldn’t capitalize on them but it’s not by a lack of effort.”
In the same vein, Clarkson said Toronto’s losing streak wasn’t for a lack of effort. But in a results-oriented business, they simply weren’t there.
They came Tuesday night because McClement drove hard to the net, Bolland banked the puck off Flames defenceman T.J. Brodie and Mason Raymond sprung Clarkson on a breakaway. Jonathan Bernier also made 22 saves for his first victory since March 10.
“It wasn’t pretty, but we’ll take it,” Bolland said. “I don’t think we played the prettiest game or we made the prettiest moves. But in a slump like that, just to get out of that, it’s great to get out of it.”
One victory won’t get the Leafs out of the hole they dug over the past few weeks, but players’ hope is that this is at least a start.
“Hopefully it’s big,” said Clarkson, whose goal was his first point in 17 games. “At this time of the season, you stay positive, you continue to get better and you’ve got to stick together. We’ve got to stick together in here and back each other up.”
And get some help. Phaneuf was keenly aware of the Capitals’ 5-0 loss to the Dallas Stars and the Blue Jackets’ 3-2 overtime loss to the Avalanche on Tuesday night.
“We’re definitely aware of where we’re at, and you’re aware of the scores and what else is going on around you,” he said. “You don’t want to be in the position that you’re scoreboard-watching, but that’s the position that we’re in. We accept that, and any time you get help around the league, you take it.”
More than anything else, the Leafs have to take care of business in front of them. The remaining schedule includes home games against the Boston Bruins and Winnipeg Jets and then three on the road at the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators.
It’s possible they’ll need five more in a row to make a suddenly improbable run to the playoffs. But all the talk after beating the Flames had to do with Wednesday’s practice and then Thursday’s game against the East-leading Bruins.
“We know we’re going to play a Boston team, but we should feel good about ourselves because we’ve had a lot of things that have been negative for us, so let’s enjoy the win and let’s get ourselves ready tomorrow to play a real tough opponent in the Boston Bruins,” Carlyle said.
NOTES—Phil Kessel played for the Leafs despite a bruised right foot. More than once he took a puck to that foot. “It’s like, ‘Here it is, hit me.’ He had the sign on his foot,” Carlyle said jokingly. … Paul Ranger dressed as the Leafs’ seventh defenceman in his first game since suffering a neck injury against Tampa Bay on March 19. Forwards Colton Orr and Jerry D’Amigo were scratched. … Bryce Van Brabant made his NHL debut for the Flames, becoming the 10th Calgary player to do that this season.