For two periods, in San Jose on Tuesday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs showed very little. They fired twenty harmless shots at Antti Niemi. Meanwhile, in their own end, rookie netminder James Reimer was standing on his head trying to hold off the terrible trio of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley. Then the third period started, and the Leafs did four things – THE RIGHT THINGS – that guaranteed them victory and a three-wins-in-three-games start to this road trip.
About three minutes into the period, Phil Kessel took a pass on the left side, with a defenceman between him and the net. Normally, Kessel drags the puck here and tries to fire a low one on net, through the defenceman’s legs, surprising no one. But not tonight. He cuts across centre ice with the puck, watches everyone move the wrong way, then buries one in the gaping net. It was a pure goal-scorer’s goal. He held the puck forever. Not something Kessel has done a lot of this season. But his break from the predictable was the Leafs’ first step to victory.
Moments later, Sharks’ defenceman Niclas Wallin interfered with Tyler Bozak, then did the same to Colby Armstrong in the corner. With a Wallin penalty signalled, the Sharks circled into the corner. Armstrong got shoved. And then he took the Leafs’ second step to victory. He did nothing. His gloves did not drop. He just stood there. Brilliant. Way to keep your head, Colby. Eighteen seconds later, on the PP, Clarke MacArthur scored.
Fast forward to the Leafs’ blueline. Game now tied 2-2. Over ten minutes remaining. Dion Phaneuf plows little Dany Heatley into the middle of next week. You know, just to let San Jose know that the Leafs aren’t about to fold the tent. That was moment number three.
Finally, with 9:50 left in the game, and the Leafs pressing, feisty forward Darryl Boyce decided it would be a good time to wedge his a** into Antti Niemi’s face. Three Sharks jammed into the crease to try and move Boyce out. Too late…Dion Phaneuf’s shot from the point was perfectly placed on Carl Gunnarsson’s stick. Everyone was worrying about Boyce, and the Leafs scored the game-winning goal.
Those four simple acts turned a Leafs’ loss into a Leafs’ victory. That’s how teams win. They do little things well – and often. They are not characteristics we are used to seeing in this year’s Leafs, but they are beginning to pay dividends.
Before the game, maligned defenceman Mike Komisarek told Sportsnet’s Paul Hendrick that the “guys are finally buying into what coaches are trying to sell us." I don’t even want to know why it would take half-a-season for that to happen with a club that was in underachievement hell.
No matter. What does is that the Leafs continue to roll into Phoenix on Thursday night. They are now in a position to claim every available point on this road trip. And they’ve done it by executing the little things to perfection.