On a day when Toronto got whacked by its first winter blizzard, the Air Canada Centre got whacked by the Teamsters and David Clarkson got whacked with his second suspension, expecting the Maple Leafs to halt their fish-tailing skid down the standings with the defending Stanley Cup champions in town would have been, well, whacky.

Asked what was required of his team to rise to the challenge of the formidable Chicago Blackhawks, coach Randy Carlyle was succinct:

“I guess they can’t be brain-dead.”

I guess insulting your players is old-school coaching. Yup, that’ll really make ’em listen up.
Something did. Or they’re not listening at all, except to their inner voices.

Saturday night, the Leafs’ collective EEG showed more than a blip of brain activity — conscious and conscientious — with a strong signal fluctuating across the ICU monitor, and a mighty heart beating to the tune of 7-3.

In their best start to a game in quite a while — admittedly thanks in no small measure to the uncharacteristic foolishness of three straight Chicago penalties — Toronto racked up a hugely unusual 8-1 edge in shots and 1-0 lead on the scoreboard with scarcely seven minutes gone.

That goal was crafted from a heads-up piece of passing, Mason Raymond on the fly at the top of the faceoff circle clocking Joffrey Lupul at the edge of the paint, Lupul getting a second chance on his initially blocked short-putt to Peter Holland parked at the other side of the crease. The Leafs’ second power-play unit had niftily managed what the No. 1 PP crew couldn’t.

Maybe one goal off three early 5-on-4 chances against a team with the third-worst penalty kill in the NHL isn’t much to crow about. But there can be no doubt Toronto was working hard for the money, against a club that arrived in town with a 19-6 goal tally over their previous three wins. The Leafs were 2-6-2 over the past 10 and on their back foot, sliding headlong towards non-playoff territory. This, you might recall, from a squad that had sat atop the Eastern Conference as recently as Nov. 8.

And certainly there was shiver of oh-oh that went down the crowd’s spine — 19,603 in the house, largest announced attendance of the season — when all that early good effort was erased on a Blackhawk power-play marker, knotting the score 1-1 with under four minutes left in the opening frame, Patrick Kane notching his 18th with Raymond serving a brain-cramp infraction — tripping a ’Hawk behind the Chicago net, some 199 feet from Jonathan Bernier in the Leaf cage.

Indeed, it was a wildly adventurous evening for Mr. Raymond. When he was good, he was very, very good. When he was bad, he was cover-your-eyes awful.

After Jerry D’Amigo connected for his first NHL goal — yay Jerry — ripping a wrister off a puck Nikolai Kulemin had delivered with a one-handed shovel pass, Raymond atoned. Lupul threaded a pass through Duncan Keith’s legs which set up a mini two-on-one for Raymond and Holland; Raymond fed across to Holland who potted his sixth of the season, feasting on the half-open net behind rookie Antti Raanta. The young Finn has been living a charmed life these past couple of weeks, not giving up more than two goals since summoned as an injury fill for Corey Crawford and his severe groin pull.