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OTTAWA—The “internal accountability” the Maple Leafs had been talking about showed up in the second period intermission when Patrick Marleau rallied the team with a rare speech.
The “swagger” they were hoping to rediscover showed up in the third with electrifying plays that led to goals by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Connor Carrick.
The result was a 4-3 win for the Leafs over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night, Toronto’s first win in five games and its first win in regulation since Dec. 28.
“I didn’t really tell them anything they didn’t already know,” Marleau said. “Great effort in the third to come back and get the two points we desperately need to turn things around here. That’s a step in the right direction.”
The Leafs were hanging their heads, having seen a 1-0 first period lead turn into a 3-1 deficit in the second period. And after sitting in their dressing room coming to terms with their weak effort, they responded to Marleau’s speech by coming out with a ferocity in the third period that had the pro-Maple Leaf crowd at the Canadian Tire Centre chanting “Go Leafs Go.”
“When guys like Patrick Marleau step up and say something, guys are going to listen,” Matthews said. “He’s a soft-spoken guy. But when he says something, you better listen. That got the ball rolling. In the locker room, we said we’d go out there, score one and see what happens. We put our foot on the pedal.”
First it was Matthews, showing a lot of emotion after a little chip-in, who started the rally at 2:53. It was his first goal in five games, and first goal in Ottawa since his four-goal debut a season-and-a-half ago. Then Marner, with a toe-drag across Craig Anderson’s crease, tied the game on the power play at 4:21.And Connor Carrick, with a harmless wrist shot from the point, gave the Leafs back their lead at 8:58.
The only question then was whether they could hold on. That had been the problem that had started the conversations about accountability and swagger in this stretch of games that has been their first true taste of adversity. They did.
“This was a big character win for us,” Matthews said. “We stepped it up to another degree, and found the level we’re capable of playing.”
The Leafs played without Morgan Rielly, out with an undisclosed upper body injury suffered Thursday in Philadelphia. He skated ever so briefly on Saturday at an optional morning skate, and did not talk to reporters.
He will be re-examined Sunday.
If there was anyone who was on the hot seat Saturday, it was Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen. It’s rare these days that a player call out his teammates publicly as Andersen did in Philadelphia. It was obvious from his comments over the past two days that Toronto coach Mike Babcock would have preferred those comments to remain private.
But the team took the comments the right way.
“We talked about things internally,” Andersen said of his conversation with Babcock. “I think I’ll keep it there. But (his Leafs teammates) want to use it as a positive and go from there.”
What Andersen did was motivate his teammates to talk about getting their swagger game, and what’s become a new buzz term: “internal accountability.”
Andersen said the swagger “means we have the puck a lot, we create a lot of scoring chances, we don’t turn the puck over too much and we get to the to the net, which create scoring chances, and turn into goals.”
Even if Babcock didn’t love that it happened, he’s happy that the team’s expectations of itself is rising.
“My favourite thing about this whole thing is the internal accountability that seems to be coming,” the coach said. “When you’re a team with no expectation, there’s none of that. There just isn’t. As you create a real good team over time, the players take over that accountability thing. Sometimes it’s not kind to one another, but it’s real and living in the real world is important in our league.
“I think you’ve got to make each other accountable. I don’t think that means you’ve got to have a big song and dance, but you’ve got to make sure the unacceptable is unaccepted. It’s hard to stand up. It’s way easier to go through life and never say nothing. Wear beige and no one ever knows you’re alive.”
So while the Leafs continue try to move from being a good team to a great one, the Senators believe they are not that far out of the playoff race. They entered Saturday’s action 16 points behind the Leafs, who hold third in the Atlantic Division, but Ottawa also has four games in hand.
“Everyone is looking at us and counting us out, but realistically, with the games in hand, if we take of those games in hand, we’re right there,” Senators forward Matt Duchene said. “We need to go on a bit of a run. We know that. There are plenty of games, so there is an opportunity. But we have to take that opportunity.
“I don’t know what’s in my teammates’ minds. I assume the same that’s in mine. This is a heck of a hockey team in here, when you look at the roster we have and what we’re capable of. This team was one goal away from the Stanley Cup finals last year.”
A fairly entertaining first period ended with the Leafs up 1-0. It took a few minutes for the first shot to be registered, but there was no shortage of up-and-down action. The Leafs finished the period with a 12-4 shot advantage. The Senators’ best chances either went just wide or hit the post.
Hyman opened the scoring at 7:26, parked off to the side of Andersen. Each Leaf in his own way contributed to the pressure that led to the goal.
Ottawa scored all three goals of the second period, despite having just eight shots.
NOTES: The game was the 106th as a Leaf for Andersen, tying him for 20th with Jacques Plante amng Leafs goaltenders . . . Dominic Moore and Josh Leivo were healthy scratches . . . Patrick Marleau wore an A in Rielly’s absence.