TORONTO – Before the Maple Leafs took to the ice Sunday morning, they sat down to watch video of the celebrations from the previous night in Toronto.
While the Leafs were beating the Bruins 4-2 in Game 2 of their playoff series at Boston, a sea of blue-and-white clad fans were watching the drama unfold on the giant screen back home at Maple Leaf Square outside the Air Canada Centre.
And if the players didn’t fully grasp the significance of a playoff appearance to a city that has been dying for one for nearly a decade, they certainly did when they watched the delirious crowd erupt the moment Phil Kessel scored the winning goal.
“We know the passion that’s in this market and the pent-up frustration that’s taken place over the last while,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said after Sunday’s optional skate.
“It’s a step of earning respect back for our community and our fans. That truly is one thing that we’ve talked about, and we’ve presented that to the players, that’s part of our responsibility to provide the highest quality of effort that we can.
“I think that this town is a hard-hat town in a lot of ways—it’s an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. Some of these guys are paid pretty well.”
The Leafs got off to a rough start in their first post-season appearance since 2004, dropping a 4-1 decision in Game 1 at Boston. But Saturday’s Game 2 victory that saw Joffrey Lupul score twice and Kessel earn a rare goal against his former team breathed even more life into a fan-base already amped up for some playoff action.
“We have unbelievable fans here and I think it’s great for them to finally be able to cheer on a playoff game. They’ve stuck with us and they deserve this,” Lupul said. “Hopefully everyone in the city is having fun and we can make them proud.”
James van Riemsdyk scored the fourth goal for Toronto, which trailed 1-0 before reeling off three unanswered goals.
Carlyle and his players said it was a good feeling to return home on the heels of such a strong performance. They took a few moments to savour the good vibes, but then got back to business at the ACC.
“This is a day in life. Because you won one hockey game, you can breathe for a day,” Carlyle said. “The amount of intensity and scrutiny that takes place here you’re under the microscope a lot. When you have days like today, it gives you a little bit of time to exhale.
“But we know it’s coming (Monday), that’s our preparation. Don’t get too far ahead of yourself, enjoy it for 10 minutes and then move on.”
The Leafs likely spent more than 10 minutes savouring Kessel’s goal at Boston, just his fourth against the Bruins since being traded to Toronto and first at even-strength.
The Leafs forward is usually greeted in Boston by cheeky chants of “Thank you Kessel,” usually after a goal by Tyler Seguin—one of the players Boston drafted with the picks Toronto traded away to acquire Kessel.
Saturday night it was Leafs fans that had #thankyoukessel trending on Twitter.
“It was awesome,” said Nazem Kadri, who assisted on Kessel’s goal. “I don’t think I’ve been so happy for someone to score a goal, especially the time he’s been putting in, and getting the chances but not always being rewarded for it, it was nice to finally see one hit the back of the net for him.
“I don’t think I’ve really seen Phil celebrate too much after a goal, but I saw some emotion after he scored (Saturday) night, which kind of picked the rest of the team up.”
Carlyle said he’d “be crazy” not to hope Kessel’s goal against his nemesis gave the Leafs’ offensive star a psychological boost. But the coach cautioned against “talk,” saying his performance will be proof.
“We can talk all we want, and that’s what we guard ourselves against is the talk is one thing,” the coach said.
“The game is played on a 200 by 85 foot sheet of ice out there. It’s a game of inches in the playoffs, it’s a game of a bounce going your way or against you, there’s a game of a penalty being called in this situation or not being called, there’s a lot of things that have a factor on the ebbs and flows of the game.”
The Leafs know the atmosphere at the ACC will be emotional and electric Monday and Wednesday night for Games 3 and 4, and Carlyle said his players should soak it in.
“I think you always have to feel inspired by your home fans, that’s a natural and I know that when our players go out on the ice (Monday) night they’ll have chills and shivers running up their spine,” Carlyle said.
But Lupul cautioned, once the puck drops “it’s still a hockey game.
“The crowd will definitely give us a little bit of a lift, but if you don’t go on the ice and perform and play the way you can, it doesn’t make that much of a difference.”
Carlyle spent much of his time between the big win and Sunday’s skate watching video of Game 2, and said there were still areas the team could improve on. Goaltender James Reimer bailed out the team on a couple of turnovers that turned into point-blank opportunities for the Bruins.
But he was pleased there was more flow to the game than there was three nights earlier in Game 1.
“We were so poor on Wednesday night that it wasn’t going to take much more to feel positive,” Carlyle said. “We were at the bottom and that was a bad feeling for everybody, and we just tried to erase that over the two days we had to prepare for last night’s game.”
Carlyle shook up his line combinations Saturday night, partly in an effort to keep Kessel clear of the Bruins’ six-foot-nine defenceman Zdeno Chara. The Leafs coach said slowing down the colossal Chara takes a team effort.
“He’s a monster of a player,” Carlyle said. “He may be the best defenceman in the league this year. He’s a big man and he can wear you down, he’s more on the giving side than receiving side, so it’s a tall task.
“You have to have your whole team committed to making the body check. I don’t look at it as making big hits, I look at it as stopping progression.”
NOTES: Toronto defenceman Mike Kostka skated on Sunday four days after his suffered a broken finger in Game 1. Kostka didn’t sound like he’ll be returning any time soon. “In terms of a target date, I don’t know, I just wanted to get back on the ice,” he said. “I’m already getting sick and tired of riding the bike and if I can jam it in the glove just to get out and get a workout on the ice, that was the goal.”