The Maple Leafs have recorded their first three game winning streak since March by way of a shootout win (you heard me correctly) over the New Jersey Devils. Joe Sakic Rookie call-up Jeremy Williams made it three-in-three and also sniped in the shootout to continue his tear at the NHL level. Fourth shooter Jason Blake won the game on a sweet spin-o-rama move but I still highly dislike him. Seriously though, his work rate and overall level of play have visibly improved in the month of December.
The Leafs’ first real winning stride of the ’08/’09 campaign has been keyed by vastly improved defensive play. Over the course of their last nine outings, the Leafs have limited the opposition to two goals or less on seven occasions. The biggest difference of all defensively has been the resurgence of Vesa Toskala between the posts. After a miserable first two months, Toskala has hit his stride in his last nine starts, posting a 5-3-1 record and a 2.4 GAA. The Finn stopped 25 of 27 shots tonight, including a game-saving breakaway toe save on Travis Zajac after Tomas Kaberle tried to give the game away with seconds remaining. Toskala also managed to get the shootout monkey off his back to some degree after stopping three of four shots in the tiebreaker.
Kaberle and Kubina’s ice-time was back up into the mid 20s after the pair provided their best efforts in quite some time (Kaberle’s giveaway notwithstanding). The Jaime Sifers-Jeff Finger pairing that entered the game as the Leafs’ top unit faded a bit tonight after their combined screw up led to the Devils’ first goal. Nonetheless, Finger went on to post a team-leading EIGHT blocked shots. Second to him in that category was Mikhail Grabovski with four.. the Kyle Wellwood parallels that were initially drawn next to Grabo could not have been further off.
The new top line combination of Nik Kulemin, Matt Stajan and Nik Antropov proved a success. Kulemin and Nik Antropov played off of each other nicely. The trio opened space for themselves in the offensive zone and also created traffic in front of Scott Clemmensen’s crease. Alex Ponikarovsky and Mikhail Grabovski also combined well on the second unit.
With the win the Leafs improve to .500 (12-12-6) and maybe, just maybe, are starting to turn the corner towards a winning record. In the midst of the re-building process, that prospect certainly poses an interesting dilemma