TORONTO – Tyler Bozak and the Toronto Maple Leafs spent a lot of time chasing the puck.
It was exactly the kind of possession game the Minnesota Wild want to play: one that frustrates an opponent.
“They got the puck a lot of the time, so it’s kind of hard for you to get shots when they’re cycling on you,” Bozak said.
In the end, it didn’t matter. The Leafs were outshot 37-14 but generated some opportunistic offence in a 4-1 victory at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night.
“Minnesota’s a team that eliminates chances and shots big-time,” said Toronto goaltender James Reimer, who made 36 saves. “You watch any game they play, and you’re lucky if you get 20 shots on them. I wasn’t expecting us to get 40 on net tonight, but what we do so well is even though we don’t get the most amount of shots, we capitalize on our chances and that was the case.”
The Leafs improved to 6-1-0, continuing their best start since 1993 when they opened 10-0. But the way they’ve managed to overcome some weak play and keep winning is somewhat masterful.
Coach Randy Carlyle conceded that this one was again not a work of art and knows his team can’t continue this level of play and expect the same positive results that have been there so far.
“Some nights we’re going to get our butt kicked playing like this,” he said.
The way the Wild (3-2-2) put on a clinic in maintaining and protecting the puck, especially in the offensive zone, could’ve spelled disaster for Toronto. Sparked by four early power plays, they carried the momentum everywhere except the scoreboard.
That’s because the Leafs scored on their first shot, a tap-in from the crease by Bozak after a tic-tac-toe passing play with Dave Bolland and Cody Franson 4:24 into the game, and on their third shot, a five-hole goal by Trevor Smith 13:51 in.
Reimer expressed empathy for Minnesota goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who was chased from the game after allowing Mason Raymond to score Toronto’s third goal on its seventh shot. Josh Harding faced just seven shots the rest of the way.
“Honestly I kind of feel sorry for Kuemper,” Reimer said. “That’s a tough first start of the year to come into where you’re not getting much chances and then all of a sudden there’s a tic-tac-toe in front and then a breakaway. You can’t get into a rhythm. For him, his game was by far the hardest out of any of us three.”
Reimer’s job wasn’t easy, by any means. Making his first appearance since being pulled Oct. 5 against Ottawa, Reimer was tested plenty early because of a barrage of penalties.
Being on the receiving end of a shooting gallery while shorthanded wasn’t what Reimer would have liked, but it helped get him into the game after so much time off.
“I think as a team you’d rather face less because every shot is a chance for the puck to go in,” he said. “But as a goalie, you like to feel the puck and get those shots. You don’t want necessarily scoring chances but shots. It’s nice to get in the game but at the same time a couple less power plays would’ve been good, too.”
The Wild took four penalties, but two of the Toronto’s three power plays turned into goals. The Leafs were happy to win the special-teams battle on a night they didn’t have their best game.
But the heavy shot disparity provided the Wild with no moral victories.
“There’s no consolation in us coming here and saying, ‘Oh we outshot them, we outplayed them,'” forward Zach Parise said. “We didn’t win.”
Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said he has been part of 4-1 losses, “but not many of them felt like that.”
The same could be said in the home locker-room, where the Leafs followed a familiar script of being outshot and still celebrating at the end of the night. They put just 13 shots on net twice last season and won both games.
The Leafs’ franchise record for fewest shots in a victory is nine, set March 4, 1999 when they beat the St. Louis Blues 4-0.
They could chalk up Tuesday’s victory to some timely goals and more timely saves from Reimer, who on one occasion stopped Mikael Granlund after the puck hopped over Phil Kessel’s stick and on another made a save on Torrey Mitchell following a neutral-zone turnover by Dion Phaneuf.
“By no means was that our identity, what we want to play like out there,” said Raymond, who scored an empty netter when Kessel let the puck go in without touching it in front. “We weren’t real good in a lot of areas, but we also found a way to win. As we keep saying, we aren’t going to take away from our wins, but there’s definitely lots of room for improvement.”
That’s the conundrum for Carlyle, who is seeking improvement as the wins keep coming.
“Again, we’re in a situation that it’s hard to be critical when you’re getting points,” he said. “We’re not going to continue to accept what’s happening but we have to find a way to mould this from a different angle that our level of play has to increase.”
Notes—James van Riemsdyk was scratched from the Leafs’ lineup because of an upper-body injury that forced him to leave the morning skate early. Smith, who was recalled from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, replaced him in the lineup while Troy Bodie was a healthy scratch. … Defencemen Mathew Dumba (healthy) and Keith Ballard (injured) were scratched by the Wild in favour of Marco Scandella and Nate Prosser. Minnesota can play Dumba up to five more games before deciding whether to keep him around or send him back to the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL.