By Allan Muir
While most pointed to an ill-timed pinch by Dion Phaneuf as the backbreaker in Wednesday’s crushing Game 4 loss to the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle looked instead at goaltender James Reimer and challenged him to be better.
With his team’s season on the line, the young star delivered, helping Toronto edge the Bruins 2-1 to extend their series to a sixth game at the Air Canada Centre on Sunday night.
Reimer wasn’t alone, of course. Through 40 minutes, the Leafs put together one of their finest efforts of the season, blitzing the Bruins early before a pair of individual efforts by Tyler Bozak and Clarke MacArthur gave Toronto a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
If not for the heroics of Boston netminder Tuukka Rask, who matched Reimer save for save, it could have been over early.
Some thoughts and observations on Game 5:
• Playing with a desperation befitting their situation, the Leafs came at the Bruins in waves from the opening face-off. Rask was called on early and often, setting the tone with a spectacular glove stop on MacArthur, whose slap shot he denied from point-blank range, before smothering a smart backhand bid by Nazem Kadri and an in-tight chance by Mikhail Grabovksi as part of a 19-save first period.
• It was also Grabovski, mired in a 20-game scoring slump, who authored the play of the game. Handling the puck behind Boston’s net, he flipped the puck up and over the head of covering defender Johnny Boychuk, then bolted to the crease where he batted it out of mid-air, forcing Rask to make another glove stop. Grabovski’s stick was high when it made contact, so the shot might not have counted even if it had beaten Rask. But it was a clever gambit, one that suggested his skid won’t last much longer.
• The Leafs were unable to sustain the pressure into the second period, although the Bruins seemed perfectly willing to let them keep coming. So much for Boston’s killer instinct. Surviving a period like the first should have served as a wake-up call. Instead, the B’s desultory play continued until late in the frame when their belated sense of urgency finally arrived.
And that’s when Reimer proved his worth.
He’d been burned by his habit of coughing up generous rebounds through the first four games. Tonight, finally, he got them under control, either directing them harmlessly into the corner, or smothering them before an encroaching Bruin could pounce.
• But there was one that got away, and it led to the save of the series. Possibly the playoffs. Midway through the second period, Boston’s Patrice Bergeron found himself alone to the side of Reimer when the puck landed on his stick. The empty net, and an unlikely Bruins lead, beckoned, but Reimer slid across in time to get a toe on the shot and send it skittering wide. Larcenous.
• Not long after that, the Leafs got on the board. While killing a penalty, Bozak beat Andrew Ference to a loose puck at the blueline, then outlegged the Boston defender before beating Rask with a wrister. It was only the second shorthander that Toronto had scored all season. The other, a virtual carbon copy of this one, was also scored by Bozak.
MacArthur made it 2-0 early in the third, fooling Rask into dropping early, then driving around him to bury a backhander into a gaping cage.
• After that, it was white-knuckle time for the Leafs as the Bruins turned the Toronto zone into a shooting gallery, launching 27 of the game’s final 32 shots. Zdeno Chara finally broke through with a 40-foot wrister midway through the frame, but Reimer shut the door, denying Tyler Seguin — Boston’s snakebitten counterpart to Grabovski — several times, and then Jaromir Jagr in the dying moments.
• It was a testament to resilience, both Reimer’s and the Leafs’, that they bent but didn’t break under the furious assault. In a different time, Toronto might have gone quietly against a Boston side that’s had the better of it for years. But not now. The Leafs stood up and took Game 5. Nnow they’ll have a chance to even up the series at home on Sunday. Expect the Air Canada Centre to be a madhouse.