The momentum of a thrilling 3-2 shootout win against Boston seemed to come to a quick halt in the Verizon Centre as the Caps built a 4-1 lead by the mid point of tonight’s contest in Washington. Given the Leafs’ 0.071 winning percentage when trailing after two, their putrid 0-7-1 road record in their last eight away games and league worst 1.33 goals for average on the road entering the night, you are excused if you tuned out at that point.
But you might just have missed a game that even tops what happened Saturday night. Think November 3rd at the same venue, except they won the shootout off of a Jason Blake spin-o-rama from Mikhail Grabovski (one of few moments involving Blake Leafs Nation will actually look back fondly upon) and a Tim Thomas stick save from Jonas Gustavsson.
Who would’ve thought the Leafs would emerge with four points through two games against the Boston Bruins and the Washington Capitals after last week’s 5-0 thumper against the lowly Oilers? Inconsistency has been this team’s forte again this season as it has since the lockout, but there is some reason to hope we’ve seen a breakthrough in the introduction of Colby Armstrong’s leadership, grind and net presence and a more balanced lineup that better complements skill and speed with grit and size.
More likely, what we can take from tonight and Saturday is that the Leafs have a chance when their inconsistent scorers show up on the scoresheet – granted, a big if since October that will likely continue to be for the rest of the season. Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur weren’t just scoring threats but scorers. There was also a key secondary cast contribution from Tim Brent. It’s telling that the last two wins have, outside of the shootout against Boston, not involved direct contributions from Phil Kessel.
Just how much stock you can put into the Leafs’ record with Armstrong in the lineup is tough to say (7-2-1 after tonight). Certainly, the Leafs seem to have benefited from the leadership he has brought to the bench and dressing room and it might not be a coincidence that they’ve shown no quit since he’s returned. Dion Phaneuf’s return should only further the mentality. Certainly the Leafs team that went on a ten loss November was not only a team unable to score but an especially young group that looked to be lacking leadership. And at least in Grabovski’s case, you can’t say the goals haven’t been a long time coming. If he can score consistently like a top sixer, there’s no describing how helpful that would be to the Leaf cause.
With three games between now and Saturday against Pittsburgh (first in the East), Philadelphia (fourth in the East) and Montreal (third in the East), whether or not these recent performances are a momentum gainer or a blip on the radar will be the question as the big tests keep on coming in very short order.
For all the up and downs, from the high of the opening game winning streak to the absolute low of the 5-0 Edmonton loss and Fire Wilson chant, the Leafs now find themselves at 10-12-4, two games below five hundred. If the Blue and White continue to play with the heart and resolve that was on display these last two games and combine it with more consistent scoring outside of Kessel, they’ll give themselves a chance when it all comes down to the wire in the East. Given the second from last place finish a season ago and their current status as the league’s youngest team, that’s about all any reasonable Leafs fan is asking for.