They were right in that they responded to coach Randy Carlyle's goaltending switch to erase a two-goal deficit. Ultimately Toronto lost 5-4 in a shootout to the Detroit Red Wings in a preview of the Winter Classic, but it was the battling back to get a point that had them feeling slightly more upbeat than usual after a defeat.
"We'll take the point," captain Dion Phaneuf said. "Coming back, I feel that was a big step for our team to come back against a team that doesn't really give up a whole lot. We did a lot of really good things tonight."
The good things for the Leafs (18-16-4) came in the second and third periods when they got goals from Phaneuf and Joffrey Lupul to tie the score and then one from the much-maligned David Clarkson to take the lead.
That was a complete reversal from the first period, when they squandered the opening goal from defenceman Cody Franson and gave up three goals in 9 minutes 11 seconds to Pavel Datsyuk, Joakim Andersson and Tomas Jurco.
"We score the first goal and then we basically stood around for the rest of the period and watched them do their thing," Carlyle said. "They out-competed us badly in the first period."
Starting goaltender James Reimer gave up those three goals on 12 first-period shots. He got the hook in favour of Jonathan Bernier at the first intermission, after Carlyle noticed rebounds bouncing away from Reimer and wasn't happy with Andersson's goal going off his stick and in and Jurco shooting the puck through him.
Reimer was understandably unhappy with Carlyle's decision, which he respected, and also with his performance.
"Definitely not what we had in mind, what I had in mind," said Reimer, who was making a third straight start for the first time this season. "They just scored a couple too many goals. Obviously the second one, that can't go in. It was obviously my fault, a hundred per cent. And the third one, they made a nice play, but I think that's one that I can get done on some days, too."
The Leafs looked like a completely different team in the second period in front of Bernier. Carlyle was pleased at how his players got pucks deep, cycled, drew penalties and managed to draw even in the game by scoring twice on former Toronto goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, who wound up giving up four goals on 23 shots.
"I don't think I had my best game tonight, at least we were able to step up there and get the win," Gustavsson said.
Phaneuf said he and his teammates talked about having a better effort in the second period. That showed, and when Clarkson scored 8:32 into the third period Carlyle hoped that kind of "dirty" goal would be able to carry the Leafs.
Instead, the Red Wings (17-12-9) were able to tie it on a goal by Tomas Tatar at 13:44 when Niklas Kronwall won a blue-line puck battle against Phil Kessel.
"We made a mistake and we couldn't get a puck out along the wall, guy got in behind us, a rebound and then we lost in a shootout," Carlyle said in summing up the Leafs' sixth loss in their past seven games. "I think that the way that game developed in the evening, I think we were fortunate to get a point."
The Red Wings felt fortunate to win in the shootout on goals by Datsyuk and former Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson. It was their first victory that way this season after losing their first six shootouts.
"It was a mental block for us, shootouts, and to win this one tonight hopefully we can put that behind us and start winning a few," said Alfredsson, who scored the winner. "Winning in overtime last game and now winning in a shootout tonight lessens the grip on the stick next time around."
Mike Babcock, coach of the Red Wings and Team Canada, pointed out that he doesn't get so hung up on the shootout performance. But he'll take the points from this one, Detroit's second straight victory following a six-game losing streak.
"I think we're a pretty even-keeled group," Babcock said. "We just keep on keeping on. We're going to be fine here in the end. We've got to get players back and then we'll start playing with some speed and confidence and tempo and everything."
The Red Wings were playing without injured captain Henrik Zetterberg (back), goaltender Jimmy Howard (knee), centre Stephen Weiss (sports hernia) and forwards Gustav Nyquist (groin), Johan Franzen (concussion) and Justin Abdelkader (concussion). They got defenceman Danny DeKeyser back after missing 15 games with a shoulder injury.
Carlyle saw similarities between the two teams because the Leafs are still without centres Tyler Bozak (oblique) and Dave Bolland (severed tendon in ankle). But the rest of the team is in tact, and players have been quick to brush injuries off as an excuse.
The problem Saturday night wasn't lacking players as much as it was another poor start after Franson's goal 7:15 in.
"I didn't think we were ready and we came out a little bit sloppy," said Clarkson, whose go-ahead goal was just his third of the season. "When you allow a team with that much skill and talent to get ahead of you, it's hard to battle back, but I think we showed something tonight by battling back. We've got to be ready from the drop of the puck, be ready to play the way we know we can, the way we did in the second and third."
The Leafs' play for the final 40 minutes of regulation represented the biggest positive of the night, which was a chance for the teams to feel each other out before meeting in the Winter Classic Jan. 1 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.
That game is too far from now for either Toronto or Detroit to focus on. The Leafs' concern was about their good and bad effort that led to this shootout loss.
"It takes a toll on you trying to dig out of a two-goal hole like that," said Lupul, who had a goal and an assist. "If we take one thing from the game, it's probably get off to a little better start."
NOTES — Kessel was held without a goal for the eighth time in 10 games since Bozak went out with his oblique injury. The star winger has two goals and five assists in that time. Defencemen Mark Fraser and Paul Ranger and forward Frazer McLaren were healthy scratches for the Leafs for the second straight game.