TORONTO - Why Michael Ryder? Claude Julien looked across his bench, scanned the names on the backs of those black sweaters, and tried to pick the winning number as if standing in line at Tedeschi's to buy a lottery ticket.
No. 73, Ryder? Sure, hey, why not?
"Kind of a hunch there, guys," explained the Bruins' coach, breaking into a wide smile not long after Ryder snapped home the deciding shootout goal in a 4-3 win over the Maple Leafs last night before a crowd of 19,258 at the
But there was Ryder, Boston's fourth shooter. Two of Toronto's shooters, Lee Stempniak and Jason Blake, had scored on Tim Thomas. For the Bruins, Blake Wheeler and fellow rookie Martin St. Pierre answered with strikes on Vesa Toskala. When Thomas then snuffed out Nikolai Kulemin on a forehand stuff attempt, Ryder, a meager 1 for 11 on shootout tries in his career, made his way to center ice.
"I figured I'd just pick a spot and shoot it," mused Ryder, who assisted on one of two goals the Bruins scored in the third period to erase a 3-1 deficit. "But then, it was kind of funny, because I changed my mind at the last second. My plan was to go low blocker . . . get [Toskala] to move a little as I faded to the left. Well, he moved and the shot wasn't there, so at the last second I saw that hole on the high glove side . . . and just got it."
So ended a night in which the Bruins again muddled along with an inconsistent effort through two periods, their game turned sluggish the last two weeks with so many key contributors sidelined by injuries. They got veteran Aaron Ward (22:15, 24 shifts) back on defense last night, and that was a help, but overall their game was out of synch, in part because of the fine job the Leafs did in bottling up the neutral zone, shutting down passing lanes. All the Bruins could show after 40 minutes was a goal by Wheeler, which negated Blake's strike earlier in the first period.
"We talked in the room about needing a jump start," said Ryder, noting the inconsistent effort of the first two periods. "All we said was, 'Let's go out now and get the first one.' Earlier in the game, they really tied us up in the middle . . . we weren't using our speed, and we weren't able to get pucks into their end."
The Leafs looked as if they would pull away and hide in the second period. Stempniak broke the 1-1 deadlock at 4:13 on the power play, followed by Brad May's first goal as a Leaf at 14:49. May muscled a puck away from Dennis Wideman and then provided a knee deflection of John Mitchell's shot to make it 3-1.
"We hadn't won a game all year when we'd fallen behind by two goals," said Thomas, who turned back 31 shots, improving to 20-5-4 at the All-Star break. "A couple of guys said, 'Hey, this would be a good night to break that.' Good to get that monkey off our back."
The key was getting their legs to move, forcing the fading Leafs to foul them. The Leafs went the first 40 minutes without a penalty. By the time the third period ended, they posted four minors, and Boston cashed in two for the goals that sent it to overtime. No. 1 came with Mikhail Grabovski off on a holding call, and Wideman wristing in his ninth goal from the right circle. No. 2 came with Pavel Kubina gone on another holding call, and Zdeno Chara sinking low to pot a Marc Savard cross-slot feed for the 3-3 equalizer.
The overtime turned messy and frantic, Keystone Cops come to Canada, when St. Pierre hauled down Blake with 1:40 left in the extra session. For the final 100 seconds, the Leafs skated with a four-on-three advantage, and Thomas was constantly under pressure and peppered with shots.
"My blood definitely was pumping," said the reliable backstop, who'll head to the All-Star festivities this weekend in Montreal. "We needed everyone on the team to make it through that."
Come the shootout, Stempniak led off and potted a fancy backhand tuck, twisting his body back for the jam at the left post. Wheeler answered immediately with a forehand tuck at the right post. Niklas Hagman and David Krejci then missed their opportunities. Blake, Toronto's No. 3 shooter, made it 2-1 with a short shot that broke off one of Thomas's pads. Then came St. Pierre, with a quick snap of a forehand inside the left post. Thomas then held his ground, dropping to the butterfly to snuff the Kulemin forehander.
"OK, Ryder . . . go out and get one," said Julien.
Seconds later, Boston's 0-1-1 winless skid was snapped, and the Bruins' record was up to 34-8-5. No. 1 in the East, and right there with San Jose with 73 points for the NHL lead.
Who would have believed it?
"Maybe after the first 10 games this season I would have bet on that," mused Thomas. "But not in camp, when it's 60 guys in the room. I knew we would have some momentum off of last year. But 73 points . . . if I was a betting man, I would have bet against that."
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.