They’ve won each of the first five meetings by a combined 28-10 score, scoring at least four goals in each of those games. But completing the season sweep of Toronto on Monday night at the Garden might not be as easy as those numbers imply, as new coach Randy Carlyle is quickly making the Leafs a much less pleasant team to play against, and could have them poised to be an even greater threat in the coming years.
Carlyle has now been behind the bench for Toronto for 17 days, and even in that short time he has made an impact.
“You’re starting to see Randy’s imprint on the team in different areas, even the forecheck and their D zone,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “Certainly it’s a lot to put on his plate in this short amount of time, but you can see it’s starting to change. His philosophies and his approach to the game are starting to show. That hasn’t been overlooked by our group here in watching them play lately.”
Carlyle took over after Ron Wilson was fired on March 2. Carlyle’s first order of business was to clean up the Leafs’ defensive play, which had lapsed badly under Wilson.
“I think we’re much more solid as a group,” Leafs forward Colby Armstrong said. “We’re playing tighter and making it harder on other teams, just a lot more accountability, getting pucks in deep and playing the game we need to play with our skating.”
The Leafs allowed just 18 goals in their eight games under Carlyle, whose strong defensive system helped take Anaheim to the Cup in 2007. The 2.25 team GAA under Carlyle is nearly a full goal less than the 3.09 the team was averaging in 64 games with Wilson behind the bench. The Leafs allowed four or more goals in 24 of those 64 games, including eight of the last 10 Wilson coached when Toronto went 1-8-1 while allowing 43 goals.
Under Carlyle, the Leafs have allowed four goals in a game just twice, while holding the opposition to two or less five times.
“It’s his system,” Julien said. “You just have to look at Anaheim play when he was there and that’s a lot of what they’re trying to do. I’m not going to get into details and specifics, but that’s what we see from Randy’s approach versus Ron [Wilson]. Let me put it this way Ron was a very aggressive coach and Randy — not that he’s not aggressive — but also spends a lot of time making sure the defensive approach is there as well.”
Carlyle also preaches playing a more physical style. One of Toronto’s first moves after the coaching change was recalling enforcer Jay Rosehill, who rarely played under Wilson. Rosehill and hard-nosed defenseman Mike Komisarek were among the Leafs released from the doghouse upon Carlyle’s arrival, and Toronto has been a much tougher team to play against since the change.
“I think it’s been going well,” Rosehill said. “There’s a lot to take in, a lot to adjust to. I think over time it’s going to make us a much better team and we’ve seen signs of it already with sticking to that system and being disciplined.”
The Bruins played in Toronto for Carlyle’s second game with the Leafs on March 6. Boston prevailed 5-4 in a game that was much closer that the four previous meetings, but it was obvious the Leafs were just beginning to adjust to Carlyle’s system. They have a stronger grasp of it now, and will likely be an even tougher opponent on Monday.
“I think it’s tough to implement systems that quickly,” Bruins center Gregory Campbell said. “They’re probably in a transition phase. I didn’t notice too much of a change [on March 6], but it is tough to do that overnight. We’ll probably expect some more changes tonight. Anaheim always seemed like a hard team to play against and a competitive team, so I’m sure that’s what Toronto is going to be like.”
It has been quite an adjustment for the Leafs, but the players have bought into Carlyle’s approach.
“I think everyone has jumped on board fairly quick,” Armstrong said. “It’s definitely a big change. I’ve never had that happen before where a coach gets fired [during the season]. I think it was a big guys for a lot a guys, if not every guy in our room. But we’re working hard in practice and I think we’re starting to get some results in the games.”
Carlyle himself has seen some progress despite the club’s 3-4-1 mark in his first eight games. The Leafs have won two straight coming into Monday, having beaten both Tampa Bay and Ottawa by identical 3-1 scores.
“I think there has been progress made in the mindset of our group,” Carlyle said. “I think there are areas that for sure as a coaching staff we would like to see a greater improvement in, but our players have worked extremely hard. They’re the ones who should be credited with doing the things we’ve asked of them, which are a little different than what they’ve had to do before. But that’s the way it is in this situation and we’re all here to create an environment for them to have success in.”