TORONTO – Halfway through the truncated NHL season and Toronto coach Randy Carlyle sees a mixed bag as well as 15 wins in 24 games.
There was good and bad Wednesday night that saw the Leafs ride an ugly knockout and early lead to win the latest instalment of the Battle of Ontario by holding on to beat the Ottawa Senators 5-4 in NHL action.
“Some nights I do, some nights I don’t,” Carlyle said when asked whether he liked his team’s direction. “It’s frustrating for us at times to not be able to do some of the things that we’ve done so well in other parts of the game. And then it leaves us for extended periods of time.”
The Mojo abandoned the Leafs in the third period Wednesday night when the Senators outshot them 18-4 and outscored them 3-2.
Tyler Bozak, Jay McClement, James van Riemsdyk, Phil Kessel and Nazem Kadri scored for Toronto before a crowd of 19,412 at the Air Canada Centre.
Mika Zibanejad, Zack Smith, Daniel Alfredsson and Colin Greening replied for Ottawa, which fell behind 3-0 before fighting back in the third to make it 3-2 early and 5-4 late. The Sens outshot the Leafs 43-28.
The Leafs had difficulties burying the visitors and found themselves under the cosh late in the game after Sens captain Alfredsson made it 5-3. Greening then stuffed in the puck to make it 5-4 at 18:03 with Sens goalie Ben Bishop on the bench.
“We won the hockey game and got two points,” said Carlyle. “Is it a masterpiece? You be the judge.”
The good news for Carlyle?
“I don’t think we’ve had everyone going on one given night, to prove to us or to prove to themselves how good we can be. We’ve had too many interruptions, I would say.”
Before the goals, came the fights.
It took just 26 seconds before mayhem erupted with six-foot-five Toronto tough guy Frazer McLaren taking on six-foot-three Dave Dziurzynski at a faceoff. McLaren ended the fight violently and decisively when he caught the Sens forward flush with a right to the chin, toppling him face down. Dziurzynski was slow getting up and eventually needed help from two teammates to skate off the ice.
Had it been the UFC, McLaren would have won knockout of the night bonus.
Sadly, Dziurzynski may or may not remember the three seconds he officially logged in his 10th career NHL game. He did not return, with the Sens citing a concussion.
“That’s what McLaren does and it was definitely good for Dziurzynski to step up but I don’t know if that was the best tradeoff,” said Smith. “He’s a big guy but it’s just unfortunate he put himself in that situation.
Smith said he had checked on his teammate after the game and “he looked fine.”
“Those are big tough men fighting,” said Carlyle. “You see that, you just wish the trainer get there quicker.”
Said McLaren: “I hope he’s OK.”
McLaren, noting the Leafs had a flat start last time out, said he asked Dziurzynski to fight.
“I was just trying to get us going early. I asked him (to fight) and he actually said no, so I thought we weren’t going to go and then he ended up dropping his stuff there when the puck dropped,” he said. “He’s a big guy and he actually gave me a few good ones early there.
“It was just a lucky punch. It happens some times.”
McLaren, who seemed mortified at what happened, wore the scars of battle himself. He needed eight stitches to repair a cut on his chin opened during the fight. And he took another four for a gash on the cheek carved open by a stick later in the game.
As usual, Stompin’ Tom Connors’ “The Hockey Song” was played midway through the third period. It made for a sad interlude this time, given news during the game that the Canadian music icon had passed away at 77.
“Stompin’ Tom, you’ll be missed. Thanks for all the memories and the greatest hockey song ever,” PA announcer Andy Frost said during the song.
The game marked the halfway point of the truncated season for both Toronto (15-9-0) and Ottawa (12-8-4).
“To me it’s all irrelevant right now,” Carlye said when asked about the milestone.
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” he added. “We’re going to meet some real good hockey clubs here and it’s going to start (Thursday) night in Boston.”
Wracked by injuries, the Senators have relied on some stingy defence. They came into the game ranked second only to Chicago in goals against, giving up just 1.83 a game.
Ottawa has been good at home (9-1-2) and poor on the road (3-7-2). The Leafs, conversely have profited more away (9-4-0) than at home (6-5-0).
The game marked the return of Sens wingers Milan Michalek (knee) and Mark Stone (broken finger), who was making his NHL regular-season debut.
Toronto led 2-0 after the first period, despite being outshot 14-10. But the Leafs were more dangerous and James Reimer was up to the task when Ottawa threatened.
MacLaren’s fighting major was Toronto’s 23rd of the season. The Leafs came into the game one fighting major short of league-leading Columbus.
Less than five minutes later, Toronto’s Colton Orr upped the ante as he engaged Ottawa’s Chris Neil in what was mostly a wrestling match. The major brought Orr—whose 108 penalty minutes against Ottawa are the most against any NHL club on his blotter—within 19 of 1,000 NHL penalty minutes.
They stuck to hockey after that in what was a wide-open if sloppy game.
Bozak scored his sixth of the season at 6:24, handcuffing Bishop by sweeping in a shot off Ottawa backchecker Peter Regin’s leg following a scuffed pass from Kessel.
Less than minute later, McClement made it 2-0 with his fourth of the season when a flubbed Nikolai Kulemin pass still found him in the slot and he snapped a shot past Bishop.
Reimer—who has won six straight and is 9-3 on the season—looked sharp at the other end and found a way to rob Smith from a sprawling position when the Senator found himself on the doorstep of the Toronto crease with the puck.
Later in the period, Reimer stopped a Sens’ short-handed 2-on-1 rush.
Van Riemsdyk added to the lead at 1:20 of the second after Bozak outworked a Senator behind the net, allowing Kessel to send it out in front where the big Leaf drove it home for his 13th of the season.
But Ottawa quickly replied on a delayed penalty with Zibanejad banging home a rebound from in-close at 2:48 for his fifth goal, cutting the lead to 3-1. The Senators looked better in the second period.
Smith made it interesting, cutting the deficit to 3-2 at 1:40 of the third period. Left alone in front of the net, he poked in a rebound of Chris Phillips’ shot from the point for his first of the season.
Kessel restored a two-goal lead at 3:42, with a low wrist shot from the faceoff circle on the power play for his sixth of the season. After being shut out in the first 11 home games this season, he has now scored back to back.
Kadri made it 5-2 when Bishop failed to control Kadri’s shot at 10:18. It was the Leafs sniper’ 10th of the season and fifth in three games.
Unmarked, Alfredsson had time to measure his shot and beat Reimer for his fifth of the season at 12:08 to ignite another mini-comeback.
The loss was the fourth straight for Ottawa.
“At the end of the night I thought we were very competitive here on the road and we have to continue to push ourselves to continue to be better,” said Ottawa coach Paul MacLean.
Toronto has now won three in a row.