Randy Carlyle had plenty of chances to hold his breath.
At one point his Toronto Maple Leafs gave up the lead on a breakaway and another time had a power-play goal waved off. But when goaltender Jonathan Bernier stopped Reid Boucher in the shootout, the coach and players got a chance to exhale with a 3-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils Sunday night at Air Canada Centre that snapped their losing streak at four.
"Well, we can breathe," Carlyle said. "There's been a lot of gasping going on, and even in this game there was a lot of gasping going on [with] how tight it was. ... Hopefully this relieves a little bit of the stress that's involved for our hockey club."
Plenty of stress had been building up for the Leafs (22-20-5), who hadn't won since the Winter Classic. They still have just two regulation victories in 26 games dating to Nov. 21 and aren't yet back in a playoff spot, but the sound of their victory song — "We Can't Stop" by Miley Cyrus — brought with it some relief.
'Well, we can breathe. There's been a lot of gasping going on, and even in this game there was a lot of gasping going on [with] how tight it was. ... Hopefully this relieves a little bit of the stress that's involved for our hockey club.'- Leafs coach Randy Carlyle
"We'll take any points we can get right now," defenceman Cody Franson said. "We've had some tough bounces lately, and we've put in some efforts that could've went either way, and fortunately tonight we were able to get a couple points due to a shootout. You try and manage your emotions with shootouts not getting too high, but for us it's a little bit of weight off our shoulders."
Bernier made 36 saves on 38 shots in regulation and overtime and stopped all three he faced in the shootout to do his part to end the skid. James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak had the Leafs' goals, and van Riemsdyk scored in the shootout to beat a fatigued Devils team playing its third game in four nights.
"I think under the circumstances, that team over there's desperate (and) we were coming in here short-handed and under a tough schedule," New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer said. "I thought we gave them everything they could handle. They're probably pretty fortunate they got two points and we feel a little bit robbed, but that's the game and we've got to pick up and move on to Montreal."
Adam Henrique and Ryane Clowe scored for the Devils (19-19-9), who fell to 0-7 in shootouts this season. Jaromir Jagr, Clowe and Boucher were all unsuccessful this time.
"The way we've been in shootouts, let's get it out," Henrique said with a laugh. "I mean, they try things with shootouts, I think everyone has different opinions on it."
Opinions varied during the game, too, especially on the call by referee Ghislain Hebert that negated Bozak's power-play goal at 6:23 of the third period. Hebert ruled that van Riemsdyk interfered with Devils goaltender Cory Schneider.
Carlyle said it was one of those plays it was hard to agree with the official after looking at it on the replay. Van Riemsdyk agreed.
"I was very surprised," said van Riemsdyk, who scored his 17th goal of the season in the second period. "I looked at it after on video in between periods and I'm still kind of wondering. He gave me his thought and I asked him if he could watch it after the game and maybe next time we have a game he can apologize or something because that was pretty brutal."
It would have been Bozak's second of the night and eighth of the season. Instead, it represented another roadblock for the much-maligned Leafs to overcome.
Carlyle estimated his team had 15 scoring chances leading up to that point.
"For the next 12 minutes we didn't get any," he said. "So it just shows the mental state and how, I guess, fragile we were at that point."
But the Leafs didn't cave. Earlier on in the night they withstood a 7-1 shot deficit and gave up a breakaway goal to Clowe — his first of the season — 27 seconds after van Riemsdyk scored to give them the lead.
In managing to push the game to overtime and then a shootout, Toronto left things to chance. But players were happy to get tangible evidence of the improvement they saw in a loss at Washington on Friday night.
"Our job is to win games," captain Dion Phaneuf said. "We know that the points just keep getting bigger and bigger, and I felt that we stuck with it tonight against a team that played very well."
DeBoer was more than satisfied with his team's effort, saying players competed their butts off.
"The shootout doesn't take away from the effort that we gave tonight," DeBoer said.
Schneider, who made 23 saves on 25 shots, said it was a bit upsetting not to come away with the victory. On Saturday night, the Devils beat the Florida Panthers with two seconds remaining in overtime but couldn't pull off a similar trick against the Leafs.
That would've been a crushing result for Toronto's players, who needed something to go right.
"We needed this bad," Bernier said. "We found a way. If that's what it takes to go into a shootout and get points and move on like this, it feels good for the confidence."