TORONTO – After struggling on Toronto’s first line in his first full NHL season, Tyler Bozak may have found his niche as the Maple Leafs’ third-line centre.
Bozak scored twice in the third period as the Maple Leafs opened their pre-season campaign with a 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators on Monday.
Bozak had 15 goals and 17 assists in his first full year with the club which raised questions about where he could fit into the team.
“Your confidence gets down pretty low when things aren’t going well and I haven’t really dealt with a lot of that through my career on my way up,” said Bozak. “I’m feeling a lot better right now and this year. Hopefully we can just build off tonight.”
Colby Armstrong opened the scoring for the Maple Leafs with a power-play goal in the first with Bozak drawing an assist. Carl Gunnarsson had the Leafs’ second goal on another power play in the second.
Bozak played with Armstrong and Nazem Kadri on the wings, and the combination could form Toronto’s third line when the season gets underway next month.
“He’s around 10 pounds heavier and is much stronger,” Leafs head coach Ron Wilson said of Bozak. “He looks a little bit more mature so that’s helped and I think every team would love to have three lines that can score.”
Jared Cowen scored both of Ottawa’s goals, one in the second and the other in the third as number of regulars were absent from both clubs in their first exhibition game of the season.
After Ottawa picked up two quick hooking penalties early in the first, Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf lit up a relatively quiet 18,556 fans at the Air Canada Centre with a hit on Ottawa’s Tim Conboy in the Ottawa zone. That drew the attention of Cowen, who jumped in for a fight with Phaneuf.
“I think the team was pretty jumpy and nervous,” Cowen said. “For me myself, I was kind of glad I got in a fight there—it kind of gets you settled down and gets some nerves out. I thought I did OK.”
Phaneuf got an elbowing penalty for the initial hit while Cowen got the instigator minor and a 10-minute misconduct in addition to fighting majors for both players.
“It seems whenever you make a hit, guys come after you,” Phaneuf said. “It’s part of the game. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Buoyed by their captain’s physical play, the Maple Leafs took the lead at 5:30 of the first period. After taking a cross-ice pass from Bozak, Jake Gardiner fired in a hard pass to Armstrong, who banged the puck past Ottawa goaltender Alex Auld from close range.
“By myself, I think I’ve had a pretty good camp and I’m just trying to do what I can do and let the rest take care of itself,” said Gardiner who played with the Leafs in last week’s rookie tournament in Oshawa and paired with John-Michael Liles on the Leafs’ blue-line Monday night.
Toronto had chances throughout the first to add to their lead. Just past the 11-minute mark, Auld was caught well out of his net when he tried to play the puck. But Toronto couldn’t capitalize and eventually the play was stopped when the net was knocked off.
The Leafs came out with the early chances in the second but some hard work by Nikita Filatov led to Ottawa’s equalizer at 7:25.
Filatov got the play started with some strong forechecking to pick up the puck in the Toronto zone. After circling behind Jonas Gustavsson in the Toronto goal, Filatov found a wide open Cowen down the middle of the ice and Cowen’s shot beat Gustavsson to the glove side.
Auld and Gustavsson were both replaced a few minutes later by Robin Lehner and Ben Scrivens respectively.
Lehner had only been in for a few minutes before Toronto got the puck past him. Just past the halfway mark of the second, Gunnarsson fired the puck past Lehner from the right point on a power play.
Bozak added Toronto’s lead just over five minutes into the third period. Bozak skated onto Matt Lashoff’s clearance off the left boards before going in alone and beating Lehner with a low shot.
“We’re going to have a good top three lines here that all can score. It doesn’t really matter what line you are on for all three of those because all three can score,” Bozak said.
Scrivens, meanwhile, wasn’t tested too much but did allow one goal on the 14 shots he faced on a soft shot by Cowen that appeared to take a deflection off Gardiner in front.
Bozak’s second came off a rebound in close on Lehner. Phaneuf took a shot from the left side and Bozak put the rebound through Lehner’s legs at 13:27 of the third.
Notes: Before the game, the Leafs paid tribute to former players Wade Belak, Alexander Karpovtsev and Igor Korolev. All three players passed away during the summer. Those in attendance stood for a moment before a video tribute was played for the three players.