The players managed to tick virtually every box on Saturday night even though they emerged with a 1-0 shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers at the end of a tight-checking game.
"The things we put ... on the list, they played to tonight," said Carlyle. "They lost the point, they didn't lose the hockey game. And they won some confidence that if they stay with the program that that's the type of hockey we're going to have to play on a consistent basis to have success."
Facing a Flyers team that is among the highest-scoring in the NHL, the Leafs buckled down and eliminated the costly turnovers that have sent them into a 2-11-2 tailspin since Feb. 7.
The only player to find the back of the net all night was gifted forward Claude Giroux, who borrowed Pavel Datsyuk's signature move in the shootout to beat Jonas Gustavsson. He fooled the Leafs goaltender with a gorgeous deke before lifting the puck into the top of the net.
"It's not fair," Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov said of Giroux's shootout goal. "He did it a couple times (in practice), I saw that. But he cannot do that in a game. It's unreal."
Added Scott Hartnell: "That was dirty."
Carlyle chose to stick with Gustavsson — he's started all four games since Ron Wilson was fired — and The Monster responded with a solid 27-save performance. The new Leafs coach never reveals who will start in goal, but he sounded like he might continue with Gustavsson on Sunday when the team visits Washington.
"We said that we were going to go with the goalie that gives us the best chance to win and he pitched a shutout," said Carlyle. "We can't ignore the fact that he was pretty outstanding for us in the hockey game."
Sunday's game is absolutely critical for a Leafs team that has fallen six points behind the Capitals for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Defenceman Mike Komisarek labelled it the biggest of the year.
The players believe more defensive efforts like the one they had against Philadelphia could lead to a late turnaround.
"It felt like we took one step in the right direction tonight," said Gustavsson.
Philadelphia has its sights set on much loftier goals. With the team's record improving to 39-21-7 — 22 of those wins have come on the road — it still has an outside chance of challenging for the top seed in the conference.
Bryzgalov has been the key behind a recent surge with shutouts in three of his last four games.
"We knew it was just a matter of time before he stepped up his game and played like (the guy) we signed for nine years and big money," said Hartnell. "He's a big money player and it's good for him to get going right now. And hopefully that continues in the playoffs."
On Saturday, Bryzgalov earned his 11th straight start and made 29 saves for his fifth shutout of the season. His biggest save came on a Phil Kessel breakaway in overtime. He also denied the Leafs sniper in the shootout to preserve the victory.
There was plenty of intensity on display in a game that didn't feature much in the way of offensive excitement.
Toronto continued to show a little more edge under Carlyle, with Joey Crabb making the unwise move to drop the gloves with Wayne Simmonds following a scrum midway through the game. A one-sided decision went to the Flyers forward.
"He kept talking so we just went," said Crabb.
The Leafs were left kicking themselves over some missed opportunities. Clarke MacArthur covered his face in frustration after missing a wide open net early in the third period while linemate Nikolai Kulemin continued his frustrating season by losing the handle on the puck from in close.
"The frustrating part for us is we had a couple posts, we had a couple empty nets we missed," said Carlyle. "That's the difference in the hockey game."
But the Leafs players held their heads high after the game. After going through some long practices with their new coach over the last week, they saw signs of progress.
"You feel like eventually this is going to turn in their favour if we continue to play with that mindset," said Carlyle. "We're not going to just be a rush hockey club, we have to create offensive zone time and get a cycle game going every once and awhile.
"That's really what we're trying to sell our group."
Notes: Colby Armstrong, Mike Brown and Cody Franson sat out for Toronto. ... The Flyers are nursing a number of injuries: Pavel Kubina, Andrej Meszaros, Kimmo Timonen and Jakub Voracek all missed the game. ... Jaromir Jagr played his first game at Air Canada Centre since Dec. 29, 2007 ... The "You Can Play" public service announcement featuring Leafs GM Brian Burke and his son Patrick aired between periods and earned applause. ... Announced attendance was 19,559.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had Gustavsson making 29 saves.Suggest a correction