TORONTO — Just like after previous home victories, We Can’t Stop by Miley Cyrus blared from the Toronto Maple Leafs’ locker-room.
The victory song that became synonymous with a season of good fortune was the same, but after beating the Calgary Flames 3-2 on Tuesday night the mood was much more relief than happiness. The result snapped a streak of eight straight regulation losses to keep the Leafs’ slim playoff hopes alive.
“It feels like a lot of weight lifted off of our team,” captain Dion Phaneuf said. “We can feel good about ourselves because we won this game.”
The Leafs allowed themselves to feel good by picking up their first points since beating the Los Angeles Kings on March 13. They improved to 82 with five games remaining and passed the Washington Capitals (81, six games left) but still trail the Detroit Red Wings (84, seven games left) and Columbus Blue Jackets (83, seven games left) in the Eastern Conference wild-card race.
Catching either the Red Wings, who play the Boston Bruins on Wednesday, or the Blue Jackets, who blew a two-goal lead and lost in overtime to the Colorado Avalanche, remains a daunting task. But for Toronto (37-32-8), any victory represented a confidence boost.
“It’s been a long time. It’s been too long,” coach Randy Carlyle said. “You hope that you can build on it, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves because we didn’t paint a Mona Lisa here tonight.”
In getting goals from Jay McClement, Dave Bolland and then the game-winner from David Clarkson, the Leafs prevented what would’ve been their first stretch of nine straight regulation losses since 1967, the last time this franchise won the Stanley Cup.
“We were flat for a big part of that game and gave up three rush chances,” said ex-Leafs forward Matt Stajan, who scored his 13th of the season for the Flames.
“That’s how that team scores goals. You could say they got a bounce on the one. I’m guessing they haven’t had many bounces the last month so we’ve just got to be better.”
A loss of any kind to the Flames (31-38-7) would’ve been devastating to a team that knew it would have to run the table and get some help just to give itself a chance. Step 1 was beating the Flames.
“It beats losing, that’s for sure,” said defenceman Cody Franson, who set up McClement for the game’s first goal 50 seconds into the second period.
Anything beats losing for the Leafs, who not too long ago were in second place in the Atlantic Division before going into this free fall that saw them lose to the Capitals, Red Wings, Tampa Bay Lightning, Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils, St. Louis Blues, Philadelphia Flyers and then Detroit again.
Calgary didn’t make it nine despite goals from Stajan and defenceman Kris Russell. Goaltender Karri Ramo stopped 19 of the 22 shots he faced.
“I don’t think we got outplayed,” Flames coach Bob Hartley said. “It’s just they got one goal more than us. They were opportunistic at the right time and we got our chances late and we couldn’t capitalize on them but it’s not by a lack of effort.”
In the same vein, Clarkson said Toronto’s losing streak wasn’t for a lack of effort. But in a results-oriented business, they simply weren’t there.
They came Tuesday night because McClement drove hard to the net, Bolland banked the puck off Flames defenceman T.J. Brodie and Mason Raymond sprung Clarkson on a breakaway.
Jonathan Bernier also made 22 saves for his first victory since March 10.
“It wasn’t pretty, but we’ll take it,” Bolland said. “I don’t think we played the prettiest game or we made the prettiest moves. But in a slump like that, just to get out of that, it’s great to get out of it.”
One victory won’t get the Leafs out of the hole they dug over the past few weeks, but players’ hope is that this is at least a start.
“Hopefully it’s big,” said Clarkson, whose goal was his first point in 17 games. “At this time of the season, you stay positive, you continue to get better and you’ve got to stick together. We’ve got to stick together in here and back each other up.”
And get some help. More than anything else, the Leafs have to take care of business in front of them. The remaining schedule includes home games against the Boston Bruins and Winnipeg Jets and then three on the road at the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators.