Sports Hockey

MAPLE LEAFS

Ex-coach Carlyle returns to Toronto with Ducks

By Lance Hornby, Toronto Sun

Anaheim Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle watches action during the first period of an NHL game against the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 9, 2016, in Anaheim. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Anaheim Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle watches action during the first period of an NHL game against the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 9, 2016, in Anaheim. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

And now the final act of the Maple Leafs’ eventful five-game homestand — Andy vs. Randy.

With all the interaction between Toronto and Anaheim in trades and hockey office personnel shuffles, there’s never a shortage of reunion angles when these clubs meet.

Some of the banter on Monday at the Air Canada Centre will be cordial, such as Frederik Andersen catching up with the Ducks team he won nearly 100 games for in three years, now very happy in his new home.

But coach Randy Carlyle would presumably want to show up Leafs president Brendan Shanahan for pressing then-GM Dave Nonis to fire him almost two years ago.

Carlyle, still the only coach to get the Leafs to the playoffs the past 12 years, was thinking his edition could’ve turned it around if he was kept in place. A few weeks before being let go, Toronto won 19 of their first 31 games of the 2013-14 season.

It would take a year and a half in the wilderness before landing elsewhere, with the Ducks team he’d won a Cup with in 2007.

After Carlyle was let go, the Leafs were simply embarrassing despite the best efforts of interim coach Peter Horachek. They started from scratch under Mike Babcock.

The fan base is happy with the ‘Shanaplan’ tear down, but it was Carlyle who managed to get the most out of Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel and others, who played well up to the end of that fateful Game 7 in the 2013 Bruins playoff series.

It has long been a fascinating ‘what if’ scenario, had Toronto won that night in Beantown and did well against the New York Rangers next round: Would Carlyle and that group of Leafs have survived?

It must weigh on Carlyle’s mind, although he was not saying much about that aspect on Sunday. Returning to Toronto is just a “sidebar," he said.

“I think it’d be crazy to say it’s not special,” Carlyle told Eric Stephens of the Orange County Register after their 6-4 loss in Detroit. “But again, it’s not about me. It’s about our hockey club going out and playing against the Leafs. That’s where the game is. The sidebars are all what people like to talk about. The reality is what happens on the ice.

“It’s our job to prepare our group to play a hockey club that is playing very well right now, (49) shots last night, won a big game against the Stanley Cup champions, all of those things. They’re feeling good about themselves and we’re not feeling so good about ourselves today.”

Carlyle, whose current club remains near the top of the tight Pacific Division, is in the unusual position of coming back to the Leafs after both being traded away (the former first-round pick went to Pittsburgh in 1978) and then fired as coach.

The 60-year-old was also behind the Ducks’ bench after a much younger Babcock decided to leave the Western Conference club after a couple of years, making his name in the NHL and the international stage with a Stanley Cup in Detroit and Olympic gold for Canada.

Toronto hired Carlyle following his dismissal by the Ducks, as Brian Burke and Nonis left SoCal to head the Leafs’ front office.

Five trades between the teams took place between 2013 and 2016, including Andersen and defenceman Jake Gardiner becoming Leafs, with goalie Jonathan Bernier going west. Defenceman Korbinian Holzer, who was traded to the Ducks at the 2015 deadline, is also still with them.

It’s unclear if Carlyle will want to use Bernier in goal Monday, the Leafs getting a conditional draft pick for the latter in July after his inconsistency aggravated Babcock. In Saturday’s 6-4 loss in Detroit, Bernier was pulled and John Gibson finished up.

The Leafs badly needed Saturday’s 2-1 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Their homestand began with three close losses, including two in the shootout.

Winger Mitch Marner, who had a multi-point game, helped engineer Gardiner’s winner after Toronto killed a 5-on-3 for 2:07 with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lurking about. Nikita Zaitsev scored his first NHL goal.

Fears that some or all of the Leaf rookies would either hit a wall with this year's condensed schedule, or be demoralized by so many razor thin defeats, have been expressed.

“We have young guys and it’s good for their confidence to win these games and see how happy everyone is,” winger Leo Komarov said. “I think we are playing well, it has been close games and now we finally won it.”

The Leafs and Penguins had been leading the NHL in shots per game, but Pittsburgh had nine more wins and 25 more goals before Saturday.

“At the beginning of the year, we were scoring a lot on less shots, now we’re getting lots of shots and not scoring as many,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “But that evens out over 82 games.”

Babcock joked the Leafs are playing on the road “forever,” competing as the away team in eight of the next 10 games following the Ducks meeting.

“We’re not looking too far ahead,” Kadri said. “When we do that, we start to lose focus. We just want to focus on the third period and if the game is tied, we’re up a goal or down a goal, we just want to keep our foot on the gas and give ourselves an opportunity to win.”

ZAITSEV FINALLY REWARDED

Nikita Zaitsev didn’t have to score for the Maple Leafs to show them they made a wise investment.

But when he finally broke the ice Saturday, his NHL 30th game, it was much sweeter for the team and the workaholic defenceman who spurned other clubs to sign in Toronto this summer.

Zaitsev put a shot through traffic on Marc-Andre Fleury to tie the score 1-1, then had the key block on Sidney Crosby during the Penguins' third-period 5-on-3. Toronto hung on and won 2-1 in overtime.

“After he got that goal, he was probably our best defenceman tonight,” observed winning goal scorer Jake Gardiner. “He was playing Crosby very well and not giving him much.”

A sore foot after the game was well worth the price.

“Especially when it’s Crosby,” Zaitsev said. “He usually scores from there. He and (Evgeni Malkin), it’s their favourite spot. I feel good after that.”

Joining CSKA Moscow’s defence as a teenager, Zaitsev led them in points the past three years. He was in double figures in assists his final two KHL seasons (he also has 10 for the Leafs), with 13 points in 20 playoff games last spring.

A summer tour of Toronto hosted by president Brendan Shanahan sold the 6-foot-2 defender on the Leafs, a one-year $925,000 US contract. He and Morgan Rielly are Toronto’s busiest pairing this year, averaging around 22 minutes a night while dealing with the opposing team's top forwards.

“Zaits has been great all year,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “He probably doesn’t have the offensive production he wants, but he does a great job finding lanes and getting pucks to the net. For a player who is used to scoring, if it’s not going your way you just have to do the little things, not focus on scoring so much and it will come easier.”

Zaitsev is sending Saturday’s souvenir puck home with his parents who are visiting from Moscow. His father, Igor, was a huge influence on him — “crazy on my career, he was my idol,” Zaitsev said. But Zaitsev was laughing that his parents and brother chose to experience Saturday’s game from a sports bar and missed seeing his big moment live.

“I’ve got the first puck from (the KHL), but this is the most important one. (Finally scoring a Leaf goal) was confidence,” he said. “If you watch the games, I’ve had a lot of chances, I could’ve had five goals already. Now I feel more comfortable.”

lhornby@postmedia.com