What a night in Montreal. Aside from an unexpectedly high scoring, back and forth affair, Tyler Bozak scores twice and breaks a 14 game pointless streak. The Leafs’ powerplay goes 3 for 7. Saving the most absurd for last, Brett Lebda scores and ends Alex Auld’s night (career?). The Leafs leave with a vital two points that has lended their playoff hopes some more consideration.
It was a game where controversial refereeing will be front and centre on radio call-in shows and message boards in Hab Land [insert Komisarek crying .gif here]. Bad calls tend to balance themselves out over the course of a season and they seemed to balance themselves out over the course of sixty minutes tonight – the players couldn’t seem to get a good feel for where the line was to the tune of 15 minor penalties but it hurt and benefited both teams fairly equally in my eyes.
Kessel was the Leafs’ gamebreaker tonight with two goals and four points. This wasn’t the Phil Kessel who doesn’t show up in big games, or that scores all his goals in meaningless blowouts. This wasn’t the Kessel that is ineffective without a gifted playmaker like Marc Savard at centre; he scored both of his goals on brilliant individual efforts before playing set up guy for his center Bozak, not once but twice. In fact, most of his 25 goals have been earned this season. He’s streaky like any goal scorer of his ilk, and that should be accepted as such, but it balances out in the form of hot streaks (6 goals, 4 assists in last eight) and his 25 goals put him on pace to pass 30 again this season. The important part is that his goal scoring is there at important times, and his best game as a Leaf coming in perhaps the biggest game he’s played in as a Leaf – coming off scoring a late winner against the Islanders Tuesday to boot – is a good start in that regard.
Call him a bit overpaid at $3 million but how do you put a dollar value on efforts like Colby Armstrong’s in closing out the two points tonight? He combined with Sjostrom to put the Habs in their end for the majority of the final minute when it looked pretty ominous all of a sudden after that Pacioretty marker with under three remaining. He also finished up the night with a team-leading five hits and picked up an assist after finding the trailing Lebda with a nice pass on the 3-1 goal.
The way this group has shook off the losses of Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kaberle – particularly Keith Aulie, Carl Gunnarsson and even Brett Lebda stepping up as they have – has been admirable. The question now is if this young group takes this taste of success and gets the thirst for more or if inconsistency creeps back in in the final twenty. The most promising sign is that this is as good of a stretch of hockey since the All-Star we’ve seen from the Leafs this season and they’ve sustained it over 12 games (8-2-2). Previously we’ve only seen this type of hockey in three or four games bursts. More promising, @birky ran the numbers and found that the Leafs have earned 31 of a possible 50 points since James Reimer first started on January 1st – an 101 point pace over a full 82 game season. Reimer of course is now starting games more frequently than in January and looks like he’ll start both games back to back this weekend.
However, some points of reservation – Firstly, the Leafs have collected 14 of the 20 points against teams eighth placed or lower and face playoff teams in five of their next seven games in Pittsburgh x 2, Philadelphia x 2, Chicago. They also play Carolina, Buffalo twice and Atlanta in the final twenty. If tonight’s game was big, they only get bigger from here on in. Having zeroed in within four points of the final playoff spot with twenty to go, they’ve given themselves a chance.
Secondly, Reimer has only played more than 35 games in a season once in his career (2006-07 with Red Deer when he played 60), and he now sits at 32 for 2010-11. The Leafs will have to hope fatigue doesn’t affect his game down the stretch because it’s patently clear by now that they have the best chance to win with him in net.