By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 15) – First, the obvious: Maple Leafs earned (with emphasis on that word) their most meaningful road victory of the 2013-14 season Tuesday night in Boston – and it doesn’t particularly matter that the waning moments resembled a fire drill around the visitors’ net. Even in our statistically crazed universe, there is no category for style points.
The 4-3 cliffhanger at TD Garden equaled the Maple Leafs finest hour: A three-goal, third-period uprising against Pittsburgh at Air Canada Centre, Oct. 26, that blew the doors off a 1-1 stalemate. For sheer enjoyment, Toronto hockey zealots will include the 7-3 pasting of Chicago here in town before Christmas, but the defending Stanley Cup champions were at the arena only in body. Mind and spirit were elsewhere and neither Kent Simpson nor Antti Raanta could stop a boulder that night.
Now, for the even-more obvious: Leafs cannot follow Tuesday’s conquest of the Bruins with a stinker at home against Buffalo tonight (Sabres trail the Leafs by 20 points in the Atlantic Division standings).
Remarkably, the last time the Maple Leafs swept consecutive-night games – playing on the road, then at home – was Nov. 6-7, 2009 when they beat the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in Raleigh and routed Detroit 5-1 at the ACC. That was 328 regular-season games ago; more than three months before the Vancouver Winter Olympics. This season, the Leafs have won consecutive-night games only twice – book-ending October with road victories at Montreal and Philadelphia to open the schedule, then triumphs at Edmonton and Calgary to end the month.
When Leafs were winning in October, the Air Canada Centre was a haven. The club went 8-2-0 in its first 10 home games with six regulation-time victories. Since Nov. 19, Leafs are 7-8-1 at the ACC with two regulation wins. That trend simply has to reverse or the Leafs won’t make the playoffs. Their road performance – 8-10-4 overall with just one regulation triumph (Tuesday night) since Oct. 30 – isn’t nearly strong enough to compensate.
TYLER BOZAK BURIES HIS SECOND GOAL OF TUESDAY NIGHT’S GAME AT BOSTON BEFORE EITHER TUUKKA RASK OR DEFENSEMAN JOHNNY BOYCHUK CAN RECOVER. LEAFS DEFEATED THE BRUINS 4-3 FOR THEIR BIGGEST ROAD WIN OF THE SEASON. THEY CANNOT FALTER ON HOME-ICE TONIGHT. JARED WICKERSHAM GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Many times in this space have I touted the virtue of dominance at home. Such prosperity is stunningly evident among the top eight teams in the NHL: Anaheim, Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, San Jose, Colorado, Los Angeles and Boston a combined 110 games over .500 to this juncture of the schedule (138-28-22). The league-leading Ducks (75 points) are undefeated in regulation time (19-0-2) at the Honda Center – a streak that ranks with the most impressive, of any genre, in league history. Not far behind is Pittsburgh (19-3-0); Chicago (16-3-7); St. Louis (18-3-2); Boston (18-5-2) and San Jose (16-2-3). Toronto’s 15-10-1 mark at home pales by comparison and must dramatically improve.
After winning at Boston, Leafs have now played 48 games – the same number as during the lockout-abbreviated schedule last year. Though correlation is somewhat irrelevant given there were no inter-Conference matches, here’s how the Leafs stack up this season:
RECORD LAST YEAR: 26-17-5 – 57 POINTS – 9th OVERALL IN NHL
RECORD THIS YEAR: 23-20-5 – 51 POINTS – 17th OVERALL IN NHL
GOALS FOR/AGAINST LAST SEASON: 145/133 (PLUS-13)
GOALS FOR/AGAINST THIS SEASON: 132/146 (MINUS-14)
ROW’s (REGULATION/OVERTIME WINS) LAST SEASON: 26
ROW’s THIS SEASON: 15
SHOOT-OUT RECORD LAST SEASON: 0-5
SHOOT-OUT RECORD THIS SEASON: 8-4
Of note, there is an ominous 27-goal swing (plus-13 to minus-14) after 48 games this season. All 26 Toronto wins a year ago came in regulation or overtime, as Leafs were blanked in five shoot-out opportunities. Leafs have 11 fewer ROW’s after 48 games this season but are sticking around playoff territory by virtue of an 8-4 mark in the shoot-out.
Though Randy Carlyle has clearly (and finally) established Jonathan Bernier as the Maple Leafs No. 1 goalie (nine starts in the past 10 games), James Reimer gets the nod tonight against Buffalo. Reimer had no support at all in his last appearance – that 6-1 dog’s breakfast in Raleigh six nights ago – and he’ll have no better luck tonight if his teammates abandon him once again. Reimer continues to be a hot topic in trade whispers around the league, but David Nonis will not likely do anything – if at all – until the Mar. 5 NHL deadline.
Maple Leafs next play on Saturday night – against Montreal at the ACC – and are expected to wear their Winter Classic jerseys.
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