TORONTO – It’s impossible to fault John Mitchell for seeming a little out of breath in the wake of another comeback victory for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
He wasn’t the only one left gasping for air on this night.
The New York Rangers were cruising along with a 2-0 lead midway through the third period and seemed destined to leave a sleepy Air Canada Centre with a win on Saturday. Then Mitchell scored his first NHL goal and things got wacky, as the Maple Leafs ended up beating Steve Valiquette four more times in a span of 5:21 to pull out a 5-2 victory.
“It certainly was a burst of energy – it came all at once,” said forward Dominic Moore, one of Toronto’s goal-scorers. “It seemed like it must have been pent up. With the fans as well, they sort of released their (energy) all together.
“That was one of the funner comebacks I’ve been apart of.”
It’s of little wonder. There wasn’t much reason to believe it was coming.
The game appeared to have slipped away by the time Mitchell was penalized for holding at 10:10 of the third period. The 23-year-old rookie felt shame while sitting in the penalty box but that soon gave way to elation.
He skated into the Rangers end when the penalty expired and roofed a shot over Valiquette at 12:36. That’s when everything went blank.
“I just fist-pumped as many times as I could,” said Mitchell. “I was so excited that nothing was really running through my mind, just, ‘I scored, I scored, I scored.’
“It was great.”
And the fun was only starting.
Jason Blake tied it 2-2 at 14:02 before Pavel Kubina ripped a slapshot over Valiquette just 52 seconds after that. Mitchell got his second of the night at 16:06 and Moore put an exclamation mark on the game with his third of the season at 17:57.
You practically had to swallow to unpop your ears at that point.
“It’s been awhile since I’ve been in a game that the crowd gets into it that much,” said Leafs forward Niklas Hagman. “It was so loud and we were throwing everything to the net.
“I’m pretty sure it put a little doubt in (Valiquette’s) mind about what was going to happen.”
That in itself is amazing.
The 31-year-old from nearby Etobicoke is the backup to Henrik Lundqvist and has been a journeyman pro, but he’s absolutely owned the Maple Leafs. He shut them out through 65 minutes in a 1-0 Rangers victory on Oct. 17 and was just 7:24 from posting another goose-egg in this one.
“I don’t know exactly why that happened,” said Valiquette. “It hasn’t soaked in yet … I’m really surprised.”
The Rangers are off to the best start in franchise history and entered as the top team in the NHL.
That’s just one further reason why it looked like the game was theirs.
“The trolley came off the tracks with the silly passes and the turnovers in the neutral zone,” said New York coach Tom Renney. “We started turning the puck over, and allowed the Leafs to get back in the game.”
Vesa Toskala made 18 saves in goal for the Maple Leafs (5-3-3), who have erased two-goal deficits and pulled out wins in three of their past six games.
Ryan Callahan and Blair Betts replied for New York (10-3-1).
The Rangers weathered a fairly strong start by the Maple Leafs and managed to kill off three penalties before Callahan got them on the board. The winger scored his fourth goal of the season with 9.3 seconds left in the first period after taking a beautiful cross-ice pass from defenceman Daniel Girardi and beating Toskala high with a wrist shot.
Toronto had a couple good chances to even the score in the second period but Tomas Kaberle’s point shot rang off a post and Valiquette got his glove on a hard attempt from Alex Steen.
An unlikely source extended the Rangers lead to 2-0 as Betts got his second goal of the year – matching last year’s output – at 15:25 of the second period. Dmitri Kalinin’s point shot caromed off the boards behind the goal before the fourth-liner tucked the puck in the open side.
“I think we just try and make it hard on ourselves,” said Mitchell. “Being down 2-0 is not something that we like but it seems to be working.”
When Valiquette started the third period with nice saves on Matt Stajan and Nik Antropov, it didn’t look like it would be a recipe for success. But Toronto kept pressing and the flurry of goals soon came.
The Maple Leafs boarded a plane for Carolina right after the game and will face the Hurricanes on Sunday night.
Before ever touching down in North Carolina, some were already starting to refer to them as the NHL’s comeback kids.
“Once you sort of comeback a few times you have the confidence that you can do it again,” said Moore. “Look what happened again.”
Notes: Announced attendance was 19,179 … Mitchell did more than just score – he was a plus-4 and had five shots on goal … Defenceman Anton Stralman was back in the Leafs lineup while Jonas Frogren, Carlo Colaiacovo and Ian White were scratched … Blake played his 600th NHL game … Rookie Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn turns 19 on Sunday.