BOSTON -- Just how well did the evening evolve for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday? Phil Kessel scored his first even-strength goal in his 24th game against his old team, the Boston Bruins.
Sure, it was important for Kessel to lift the dark cloud that has hovered over him when he has met up with the Bruins this season. His goal was the game winner and it was his first point in six games versus Boston in 2013.
But more importantly, for the first time in a long time, Kessel and the Maple Leafs hopped over the boards in a determined manner for an entire 60 minutes. They deserved the 4-2 win in Game 2 at TD Garden and tie the first-round at 1-1.
It was the Maple Leafs first post-season victory since a 3-1 decision on April 30, 2004, when they knotted their second-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers, a series the Flyers eventually won in six games.
For three periods against the Bruins, the Maple Leafs kept up their physical play and moved the puck out of their own zone much better than in the series opener.
Carlyle pushes right button
There will be plenty of praise for Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle in the next 48 hours leading up to Game 3 at the Air Canada Centre on Monday night (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7 p.m. ET), the Maple Leafs first playoff game at home since May 4, 2004. Carlyle did push all the right buttons on Saturday.
He shuffled lines. He did his best to get Kessel away from Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, who has owned No. 81 every time Toronto and Boston play each other. Carlyle also didn't hesitate to replace veterans John-Michael Liles, Clarke MacArthur and Frazer McLaren, as well as injured defenceman Mike Kostka (broken finger) with Matt Frattin, Ryan Hamilton, Jake Gardiner and Ryan O'Byrne.
Frattin, Hamilton and Gardiner each chipped in an assist. O'Byrne was steady enough, even though he played only 14 minutes and 49 seconds, the least amount of ice time among Toronto's six defencemen.
But this victory was much more than Carlyle's manoeuvres. The players deserve most of the credit for rallying. There were so disappointed with the series opener. They looked slow. They stumbled and bumbled in their own end. Their puck movement was abysmal.
In Game 2, this was a much slicker team. There was better puck movement. The forwards used their speed to create several odd-man rushes against the Bruins, who were missing veteran defenceman Andrew Ference because of a one-game suspension for his headshot on Toronto forward Mikhail Grabovski.
"We were much better getting the puck out of our own zone," said Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul, who scored two goals in the second period after the Bruins snatched a 1-0 lead. "We were a lot more crisp.
"Our [defence] moved the puck better. They were getting the puck up to the forwards in full speed."
Kessel lifting the monkey off his back also will get plenty of chatter. But if Grabovski was not the Maple Leafs best player on the ice, he certainly was the most improved from the opener.
The small centre hasn't enjoyed good times this season. But those struggles will be swiftly swiped aside if he can continue to play as well as he did on Saturday. He finally was rewarded with a brilliant assist on a late-game goal from James van Riemsdyk to stem the Bruins comeback bid and put the Maple Leafs back in front by two goals.
Kadri better in Game 2
The Maple Leafs need three centres contributing to the cause. Tyler Bozak has been solid. Nazem Kadri was better in Game 2. But Grabovski was very good. He was flying out there, especially off the rush. He was good defensively, too.
He needs to be good again on Monday. The Bruins have four reliable centres. They're a veteran bunch that is less than two years removed from a Stanley Cup championship.
If the Maple Leafs can bounce back after a dismal effort, so will the Bruins.
The Maple Leafs will have to raise their level of play all that much more as they return home for their first playoff date at the Air Canada Centre in nine years.
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