Leafs survive blizzard but can’t weather Hurricanes

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    Chris Young/Canadian Press

    The Toronto Maple Leafs rolled into a snowy New Jersey on Boxing Day and skated away with a 4-1 victory in front of menial crowd that resembled more of a media gathering in Toronto. Colby Armstrong’s two goals combined with a solid effort throughout the lineup gave the Leafs a win and provided them with the boost desperately needed coming off the Christmas break.

    The Leafs would survive the lengthy and agonizing blizzard in Newark and their long trip back to Toronto would quickly shift their focus to tonight’s game and weathering the storm against the Carolina Hurricanes. An early jump in the first period looked to favor the home team until a scramble in front of the net sent the Leafs fishing for the puck, and Jeff Skinner would put the first goal of the game past Jonas Gustavsson, who may have been a little too deep in his net. A four minute double minor to Eric Staal would send the Leafs to a power play with a chance to get on the board and back into the game. Their inability to generate any offensive pressure during the first half of the man advantage wouldn’t go unnoticed. A recently volatile Toronto crowd would get on their team early, perhaps waking up the Leafs and their sniper Phil Kessel. A one timer by Kessel from a Tomas Kaberle pass would tie the game and ease some early tension. Shortly after the tying goal, Hurricanes Captain Eric Staal would strip the puck from John Mitchell and made no mistake as he powered passed the Leafs defense and beat Gustavsson for the 2-1 lead. A wide open first period would see the Leafs tie it again on Phil Kessel’s second goal of the game. Joey Crabb, who replaced an ill Tim Brent in the lineup, used a strong forecheck and allowed Kessel to pull the puck out from the corner and go to his backhand to beat Cam Ward. Crabb would become involved minutes later with a less constructive contribution as His hooking penalty would send the Hurricanes to the power play late in the period. With 9.8 seconds on the clock, Eric Staal would be left alone in front of the net and give his team a 3-2 lead heading into the first intermission.

    A fast paced second period would see the Leafs use their speed and puck movement to draw a few Hurricanes penalties and tie the game once again. With Jamie McBain in the box for the tripping the Leafs powerplay went to work and Mikhail Grabovski would continue his hot streak, finding his 8th goal in 10 games. Joey Crabb was forced into a line-change after his stick broke and Grabovski hopped on the ice and snuck into the slot to beat a sprawling Cam Ward. The tying goal seemed to lift the Leafs and their quick skating and strong pressure continued to force the Hurricanes into penalty trouble. A flurry of chances would provide the Leafs an opportunity to take the lead for the first time on the night, but an incredible effort by Cam Ward would see the game remained knotted at threes into the second intermission.

    The third period emulated the first two with a fast pace and hard effort from the Leafs most notably the line of Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin. The pressure from the Leafs was built on speed and a quick transition game that forced the game onto the shoulders of Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward. Ward, who held his team in the game during the second period was equally up to the task in the third and made a number of great saves, one of which robbed Phil Kessel of the hat-trick. The Hurricanes would push back and find themselves with a powerplay on a few occasions. A great effort by the Leaf penalty killers and a few nice saves by Gustavsson would see the game remain tied at 3. A Tim Gleason point shot would be redirected by Pat Dwyer to break the tie, putting the Hurricanes up 4-3. With a late powerplay and the net empty the Leafs were unable to tie the game for a third time, proving the Dwyer goal to be the difference in the spoiling of a strong and gritty Maple Leaf effort.

    If a sympathetic point could be given for emotional efforts the Leafs would certainly be awarded with the credit. A long and grueling trip home to Toronto from Newark was filled with snow-filled delays on the freeway, at the hotel, and in the airport. Although his team walks away empty handed, Head Coach Ron Wilson commended his players and specifically their play following the previous days events.

    “I thought our effort was unbelievable tonight. Lord knows we’ve had our fair share of adversity in the last 40 hours or so but I thought our team responded well.”

    To his team’s credit, Wilson pointed out their ability to have won the game and called on no excuses.

    “None, none. We played a strong game and effort. In the second period we absolutely dominated and out-chanced them 13-1. We had some bumps in the road but we played and excellent game.”

    A bright spot for the Leafs was the fresh legs of forward Joey Crabb, who seemed to develop some instant chemistry with Phil Kessel. A depth signing in the off-season, Crabb has been a consistent producer for the Marlies and was rewarded with his second call-up of the season. He has two assists in three games with the big club.

    “He brings some energy”, Wilson said. “He wins battles in the corner, gets pucks out, and he forechecks hard. He made some nice poised and patient plays. He has confidence from doing well in the American League and it showed tonight.”

    A feeling of relief is a rarity in sports following a loss but after tonight’s game a sense of relief was evident on the faces and in the body language of Leaf players. With three games from Thursday to Monday, the Leafs will look to recuperate from the snowy affair and perhaps build on a morale victory in preparation for the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday. The wins and points must begin to mount as the window to climb into an Eastern Conference playoff race is quickly closing. How quick that opening disappears will depend on the consistency of efforts resembling tonight’s.

    Notes:

    -Mike Komisarek played 11 minutes and 11 seconds tonight, the lowest among Leafs defencemen outside of Carl Gunnarsson who played only six shifts and three minutes before sitting out injured. At first an attempt to ease Komisarek back into action after his season was cut short in 2009-10, the $4.5 million Komisarek is seeing less and less ice time as the season wears on (his season average is 15 minutes).

    -Phil Kessel got off the schneid in a big way with two goals in the first period but finished up at -1, lowering him to -15 on the season. His loose mark in the defensive zone allowed the space for Tim Gleason to get the point shot through for the winning goal from Dwyer.

    -It doesn’t look like Giguere will return for another week at a minimum. Could we see James Reimer get his first career NHL regular season start?

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