Fresh off the NHL All-Star break in which their representation fell to last pick overall in the inaugural Fantasy Draft, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Phil Kessel were back to work in their quest for a second half surge towards a bleak playoff hope. In an important game to say the least, the Leafs welcomed the Florida Panthers to a snowy Toronto, a team one spot ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings and struggling themselves of late. Idling six points back of the Panthers and with time nipping at their heels, nothing short of a regulation victory would be truly beneficial to the collective second-half goal to make a push up the standings.
Head Coach Ron Wilson continued to look for the right line-up and elected to remain status quo regarding the suddenly crowded Maple Leaf stable in goal. Just days removed from the not so shocking revelation discovered in a ludicrous poll conducted by CBC and the NHLPA – in which 24% of players chosen named Wilson as the Coach they would least like to play for – Jonas Gustavsson may begin to ponder those results. Subject to his sub-par play and the steady influence rookie James Reimer has had on the team, Gustavsson once again found himself the odd man out as J.S. Giguere got the start with Reimer serving as back up.
The Leafs would use some early jump in the first period to reverse a growing trend that has plagued them all season long; for the first time in 11 games, the Leafs registered the game’s first goal. A broken play would see the puck end up behind the Panther’s goal and Kris Versteeg made a smart play, using Scott Clemmensen’s backside to bank the shot in for the 1-0 lead. Although on top early, the usual troubles resurfaced for the Leafs. After two unsuccessful attempts on the power play, they seemed to force the issue offensively and the defense would end up caught pinching without support. Bailed out by J.S. Giguere on a previous 2-on-1, the struggles continued. With Luke Schenn committed on the rush, the Panthers would capitalize on a turnover and Stephen Weiss beat Giguere, who had almost no chance on the 3-on-1. The Leafs however seemed determined to push the pace forward. Clarke MacArthur utilized a strong fore check to feed the puck to Nikolai Kulemin who snapped a shot by Clemmensen, regaining the lead with just over a minute to play in the period.
An early high sticking penalty to Jay Rosehill, who is filling in some muscle left behind by an injured Colton Orr, would see the Leaf lead slip away once more. Late in the advantage, Panthers forward David Booth slipped a rebound past Giguere for the tying goal. The Leafs answered back again on a powerplay of their own. A good win on the draw by Mikhail Grabovski would send the puck back to Tomas Kaberle. Kaberle quickly threw the puck on net, deflecting off Grabovski and beating Clemmensen for the one-goal lead. Although penalty trouble gave the Panthers an opportunity to remain in the game, it was a successful effort on the penalty kill that saw the lead in tact through the second period.
The Leafs tightened things up in the third period until mid way through when the Panthers found momentum. J.S. Giguere, who made a few saves at critical times, saw his strong play negated by a costly elbowing penalty to Phil Kessel late in the frame. Cory Stillman kept a play alive on the boards before heading to the net, where he tipped a point shot by Giguere, tying the game and stealing a crucial point away from the Leafs as the game would need overtime.
The overtime saw a few chances for the Panthers, but Giguere would carry his play over and bail his team out. Phil Kessel, perhaps feeling the pressure from the late penalty causing the overtime, found an extra gear late in a shift. Flying into the zone and beating Keaton Ellerby 1-on-1, Kessel had the game on his stick only to be stopped on his backhand by Clemmensen.
J.S. Giguere, true to form in the game, stopped the final two shooters, and with Tyler Bozak on the board, Colby Armstrong would score the winner for the Leafs on a nice back hand move past a sprawling Clemmensen. The move was a far cry from his remarks earlier in the year when he joked he’d “chip and chase” if called upon in the shootout. Always a means for humour, in Colby’s case, the goal proved to be a character goal by a character player.
Although shadowed by the extra point they surrendered, the Leafs did manage to find the win in a game they let slip away on more than one occasion. It’s tough to describe a three-point game with the Panthers as a building block but the Leafs have to try to find some momentum and some life as they enter a tough stretch of games where points need to amount at a quick and consistent pace. Following the game, Head Coach Ron Wilson was asked if he would lean heavily on Giguere down this stretch. Wilson answered with confidence in James Reimer.
“I’m not really sure. James Reimer has played so well every game. He hasn’t had a bad game yet, so I’m still thinking of getting games in for Reimz (Reimer). We’ll just go from there.”
Reimer has certainly earned his shot to play, and whether or not that means a conditioning stint in the minors for Jonas Gustavsson remains to be seen. At this point, what matters most to Wilson is icing the players that give his team the best chance on a nightly basis regardless of their position on paper. Call him the least liked coach in the league, right now he’s simply a coach that wants and needs to win. His job could very well depend on it.