All coach Randy Carlyle wanted his Toronto Maple Leafs to do was breathe.
“That’s been our catchphrase now, because you can’t do anything if you don’t breathe,” he said.
Breathe despite seeing an eight-game losing streak all but ruin their playoff chances. Breathe despite blowing a two-goal, third-period lead to the Boston Bruins on Thursday night at Air Canada Centre. The Leafs did that, then got a chance to exhale with a 4-3 overtime victory that, if nothing else, keeps their hopes alive for another couple of days.
“We’re alive, but there’s a lot of things that have to go our way,” Carlyle said. “Make sure that we don’t get too far ahead of ourselves. We’ve only won two games here.”
Nazem Kadri’s goal 2:51 into overtime was just one of several pieces that must fall into place for the Leafs to rebound and make the playoffs as a wild card in the Eastern Conference. They likely need to also win all four of their remaining games, as they got no help Thursday night from the Columbus Blue Jackets, who beat the Philadelphia Flyers to remain one point ahead (85 to 84).
The Blue Jackets also have two more games left to play, leaving the Leafs (38-32-8) to hope for help along the way.
They could also have to lean on backup goaltender James Reimer, after starter Jonathan Bernier left Thursday night’s game 7:22 into the third period with what Carlyle would only say was a lower-body injury. Bernier, who missed five games with a groin injury last month, was set for an MRI, according to Carlyle.
In stopping 10 of the 11 shots he faced in relief throughout the remainder of the third and overtime, Reimer picked up his first victory since March 13.
“Worried for Jonathan’s health, obviously. But it’s not worrisome with James coming in,” winger Troy Bodie said. “He’s a good goalie, he’s proven himself. He went in there and did a great job.”
Reimer had to do a great job because the Bruins (52-18-7) were pushing. They had already cut the Leafs’ lead — which was built on goals by Paul Ranger, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk — to one by the time Bernier was forced to leave.
The play that led to Bernier’s injury even included a penalty on Ranger, who pushed Bruins centre Patrice Bergeron into the goaltender. Reimer came in and got the Leafs through the penalty kill before allowing the tying goal to Bergeron at the 12:51 mark of the third.
“It showed some character to be able to come back against a desperate team like Toronto,” said Bruins forward Milan Lucic, who scored Boston’s second goal of the night 5:03 into the third. “These are the type of the situations you can find yourselves in in the playoffs.”
The Leafs can still dream and hope for the playoffs because Reimer stopped the next six shots he faced, holding on long enough to allow Kadri to eventually be the hero on the power play in overtime.
“I tried to hold the boys in there and keep it close,” Reimer said. “I had faith in the boys. They pulled it out, and obviously it was a good feeling.”
Any other feeling than the thrill of victory on Thursday night would’ve almost certainly ended the Leafs’ chances, especially given the Blue Jackets’ win in Philadelphia and their extra games left. Kadri said after the team’s morning skate that he and his teammates were well aware of their spot in the standings, which is much further down than they were a few weeks ago.
They also knew the Bruins were atop the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division and had all but clinched home ice throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs. In losing back-to-back games for the first time since Feb. 26 and March 1, Boston might’ve picked up a vital lesson after a month filled with so much winning.
“It’s adversity that we’re going to face in the playoffs,” Bergeron said. “We’ve got to make sure that we realize that.”
Lessons in losing are cheap for the Leafs with time running short. They have just four games left, beginning Saturday night against the Winnipeg Jets. That’s their home finale before travelling to face the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators to close out the season.
Asked if he thought his Leafs would have to run the table to make the playoffs, Carlyle responded simply: “I just worry about the next one.”
That has been the mantra dating to Toronto’s losing streak, which ended Tuesday with a victory over the Calgary Flames. Now the Leafs are on a winning streak, their first since March 8 and 10.
“We’ve won two in a row now, so that’s a starting point,” Bozak said. “We have huge games coming up here to end the season. But that was a tough test for our team tonight, and we were able to come out on top.”
Just being able to come out on top against one of the NHL’s top teams gave the Leafs a boost of confidence. But listen to players within the locker-room and there was never any of that missing.
“We always have the confidence in our group no matter what happens and I think we have a good core group of leadership in here and guys that are all pulling the rope in the same direction,” said van Riemsdyk, who hit the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career. “We stuck with it, even though things were tough, we’re going to have to continue to take it one game at a time, one shift at a time and go from there.”