Hot on the heels of a shootout loss to the Pittsburgh Pengiuns Saturday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs were given no time to rest before facing off against the Atlanta Thrashers in a rare Sunday matinee. After gaining only a point for their efforts against the Penguins to keep pace with the Carolina Hurricanes, Sunday’s game against the Thrashers took on even more meaning as far as implications to the Eastern Conference standings.
Despite having a shakier-than-average start against Pittsburgh Saturday night, James Reimer was given the start for the Leafs, and found himself being tested early as the Leafs came out flat to start their second game in different cities in less than 24 hours.
The Leafs first line came through yet again and opened the scoring against the play as Nikolai Kulemin fought for the puck in front of Chris Mason and tucked a backhand shot into the cage six minutes into the contest. Just two minutes later, Phil Kessel broke up ice, and worked his way out front with a great individual effort to extend the Leafs‘ lead to 2-0.
The second period was devoid of any scoring, but most concerning for the Leafs and their fans is a collision between Evander Kane and James Reimer. Reimer, who held Atlanta at bay for the duration of his stay in the Leafs net, ended up leaving the game before the second period drew to a close. Kane was called for a goaltender interference penalty on the play, but the loss of Reimer would obviously hurt the Leafs far more than a two minute minor penalty will ever hurt the Thrashers.
With Giguere in net and no Reimer on the bench, Atlanta finally managed to get one past a Leafs netminder when Andrew Ladd recorded his team-leading 23rd goal just 0:23 into the third period. To make matters worse, Colby Armstrong briefly left the game after taking a hit from Nik Antropov. Antropov was assessed two minutes for charging on the play, but the Leafs were again unable to convert on the powerplay. Losing either Reimer or Armstrong for any length of time at this stage of the season would be devastating for a Leafs team who are in a legitimate battle for an Eastern Conference playoff spot. Thankfully, Armstrong returned shortly after the penalty expired.
Just past the fifteen minute mark of the third, Evander Kane beat Luke Schenn to the outside and although Giguere made a good save, the rebound landed right on the tape of former Leaf Tim Stapleton, left alone as Gunnarsson chased Kane around the net, who made no mistake in tying the game 2-2. Atlanta continued to press and the Leafs looked similar to the way they did in the first period, unable to clear the zone and hanging on for some relief.
Despite facing 19 shots in the 3rd period, the Leafs weathered the storm to make it to overtime. The fatigue the Leafs showed throughout the game proved to be too much to overcome in the extra time as Ron Hainsey came off the bench and buried the winner over Giguere’s shoulder. The Leafs had absolutely nothing left in the third and combined with Giguere’s shakiness and loose rebounds it was the recipe for the second lost lead in as many nights.
Realistically, the Leafs did fairly well to make it to overtime considering the hard-fought game the night before, but losing two points over the weekend is difficult to swallow considering the Leafs held leads in both games and could have greatly benefitted from taking the extra points in their games in hand over Carolina. As a result of the overtime loss to the Thrashers, Toronto and Atlanta are now tied for 10th in the East with 63 points after 63 games played.
The road for the Leafs doesn’t get any easier up ahead as they host Pittsburgh on Wednesday night and then have to travel to Philly to take on the East-leading Flyers Thursday night. At the top of the list of questions facing the Leafs is whether or not James Reimer will miss any time. Giguere’s lacklustre performance against Atlanta reinforces the importance of Reimer to the Leafs’ playoff hopes, and at the same time raises questions as to whether Giguere is really ready to return to NHL duty.
With the trade deadline quickly approaching, the Leafs need to regroup quickly and begin preparing for a tough stretch of games coming up that will test how worthy they are of a playoff spot.