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Maple Leafs show progress, beat Blue Jackets in Horachek's second game as coach

01/09/2015 10:17 EST | Updated 03/11/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - It's too early in his tenure as interim coach to know what a Peter Horachek-coached team looks like, but the Toronto Maple Leafs gave a pretty good indication of the new standard in his second game behind the bench.

In beating the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-2 Friday night at Air Canada Centre, the Maple Leafs responded to an early deficit, out-shot an opponent and kept pressing with the lead. In other words, Horachek hockey helped end a three-game losing streak.

"I definitely feel like that's how we need to approach every game, for sure," said Horachek, who was awarded the team's camouflage hoodie by players after his first win as Leafs coach. "It's not going to be perfect all the time, but what we want them to do is play more in that direction that we played tonight."

The Leafs out-shot the Blue Jackets 32-20. The 20 shots were the second fewest of the season (10 vs. Buffalo Oct. 28) and the second time in 42 games Toronto allowed under 24 shots in a game.

That itself was an accomplishment.

"I think it's all part of the process," defenceman Cody Franson said. "To keep a team to under 25 shots takes a lot of work. But the work that you're doing allows you to play a less exhausting game. If you play hard in your D-zone you don't spend as much time down there, and therefore you don't have to spend as much time hitting people and trying to defend. You can get in the offensive zone and not necessarily have to be as physical."

When the Leafs (22-17-3) got chances, they took advantage. Tyler Bozak, Daniel Winnik, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk scored on 2013 Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, and van Riemsdyk added an empty-netter for good measure.

All that came after Blue Jackets centre Ryan Johansen scored 3:15 in on the first shot on Jonathan Bernier, who finished with 18 saves. Horachek told his team to "stick with it, don't let anything bother you and just keep going," and players listened.

"Our team really responded," captain Dion Phaneuf said. "We stuck with the way that we had to play. We didn't give up a whole lot all night and it was start-to-finish probably one of our strongest games that we've played as a team."

For a team striving for some measure of consistency, this was it. General manager Dave Nonis blamed fits of inconsistency for the firing of coach Randy Carlyle on Tuesday.

Leafs president Brendan Shanahan delivered the same message in speaking with players Friday morning, that this isn't good enough. The group that took the ice against Columbus (18-18-3) looked like it took that message to heart.

"He's the boss of our organization and the president of our team, so when he addresses the team, the team listens with open ears," Phaneuf said. "It wasn't a negative meeting, but it was about what he expects from our team — very straightforward, professional, and I thought our team responded well and in the right way."

The Blue Jackets didn't respond the way coach Todd Richards would have liked. Two Toronto goals came as a result of the puck going in off a defenceman, and the Leafs' two power-play goals came after some poor discipline.

"They were bad penalties," Richards said. "We lost too many battles on the walls, in the corners. I think we took four penalties so you're giving a team, plus the five-on-three just off of a line change. So, bad penalties. You aren't giving yourself a chance to win."

Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was playing his first game since signing a US$29.7-million, four-year extension earlier in the day. Bobrovsky stopped 27 of the 31 shots he faced and couldn't be faulted much for the loss.

"It was tough," Bobrovsky said. "Tough game. Tough start, but we've got to find a way."

The Leafs found a way by committing to the kind of defence-first style Horachek wants. It's not that they're suffocating in their own zone, but keeping shots against down by keeping the puck and dictating the pace is part of the plan.

"They always say when you're in the offensive zone, it's tough for them to score some goals," Winnik said.

Scoring two power-play goals for the first time in over a month, the Leafs showed they could make a team pay for penalties. But perhaps the most impressive part of this victory was how they didn't go into a shell after building a three-goal lead.

Instead, the Leafs kept pushing and limited the Blue Jackets' opportunities to get back into the game.

"I think that's been one of our faults this year is when we have leads like that, we sit back," Winnik said. "But I thought we did a great job of just taking it to them."

The Leafs embark on a four-game road trip that takes them to Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose and St. Louis. They face the Stanley Cup-champion Kings on Monday.

Horachek has been around the game long enough to know it's impossible to play this kind of game every night. But his players can try.

"That's the kind of game that we're striving towards on an every-night basis," Franson said. "If we can play like that as a group, we spend less time in on our own zone and we're a much better team because of it."

Notes — Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier finished with 18 saves for his 16th victory of the season. ... Referee Dean Morton was upended by David Clarkson in an accidental collision early in the first period. Morton flipped in the air and went down to the ice in pain. After being attended to by training staff, Morton was helped off and did not return. Marc Joanette worked the rest of the game with linesmen Greg Devorski and Mark Shewchyk. ... Kessel was playing in his 406th consecutive game, second in Leafs history behind only Tim Horton (486). ... The late J.P. Parise was honoured on the video screens in the first period. Parise, a member of Canada's 1972 Summit Series team, died Wednesday night from lung cancer. He was 73.

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