Lineup Note: Good news for the Leafs – leading-scorer Jeff Carter won’t go for the Flyers tonight due to flu like symptoms. Carcillo is suffering the same illness and also won’t play.
With the 3-2 overtime win over Pittsburgh last night, the Maple Leafs surpassed .500 for the first time since November 2, when a 3-2 loss to the Senators completed the erasure of the Leafs‘ 4-0 start. The bad news is the Leafs are the traveling team playing the second half of a back-to-back against a President’s Trophy competitor in the Philadelphia Flyers.Â The good news about tonight is that eighth and ninth placed teams Carolina and Buffalo will square off, meaning lost points (hopefully plural) for one of the two nearmost teams in the standings.
If I’m reading Gus Katsaros’ tables correctly, the Leafs are actually more successful as a victim team in a back to back scenario than they are when entering with the rest advantage. That’s well and interesting but the Leafs have yet to face the best team in the Conference in a second game in two nights situation. With each matchup gaining increasing importance down the stretch, this is about as big of a test as the Leafs have faced so far this season as they look to hand Philly just their ninth home loss this season in a really tough building to play in. The closest test to this pair of games against Pennsylvanian opponents would’ve been the Northeastern Buffalo-Boston back-to-backer on February 15 and 16, when the Leafs gutted out two low scoring, one-goal wins and which I credit as really getting the ball rolling on this playoff push. Let’s hope for a similar triumph tonight.
A match up with the Conference’s highest scoring team will be the test of tests for the Leafs’ blueline who feature three defencemen 24 or younger in its top four (Luke Schenn, Keith Aulie, Carl Gunnarsson). Gunnarsson clocked the most icetime of the three last night against Pittsburgh at 23:27, finishing up with two assists – both key contributors to the tying and winning goals – and a plus-two in his best performance of the season in my view. The Pens’ quicker forwards attempted to outwork the Leafs with their legs in a pretty effective cycle game but the Leafs’ blueline as a whole did a sound job sticking to their assignments and limiting the Pens to just two – one of which came off of a breakaway after Chris Conner caught Phaneuf snoozing at the end of a long shift.
James Reimer, showing no ill-effects last night of the worrisome knock to the head sustained on Sunday in Atlanta, will play his second back-to-back set in under a week as Wilson continues to ride the horse that got him here. The concern is always in the back of my mind – and has to be there for Wilson as well – that fatigue could set in down the stretch drive for a goalie that isn’t used to this type of workload from his time in junior or in the AHL. While Reimer is actually human and prone to good and less good games, what we haven’t seen is any form of steady regression in his game yet. Unless that happens, all the power to Wilson; with little margin for error you have to ride the hot hand as far as it can take you.
The Flyers are an incredible five on five hockey team – more than twice as good at goal differential in close games than any other team in the league. They’re top ten in just about all important categories with the exception of the powerplay, which is 16th. They have two goaltenders in Sergei Bobrovksy and Brian Boucher splitting time and providing winning goaltending. They’re scoring is balanced with at least five players on tap for more than 20 goals, and it could be higher if Versteeg and/or Van Reimsdyk turn it on in the final 20. The Flyers have beat the Leafs handily in both meetings this season, and it’s been over three years since the Leafs last won in Philadelphia.
This team is finding a way at the moment, however. Only 2-24-3 when trailing after two periods, the Leafs came back to tie Pittsburgh and take a crucial two points in overtime and have now taken points out of 13 of 15 games since the All-Star break. Granted, you can’t delimit this team when Kessel and Grabovski lines are providing a one-two punch and Reimer is eating pucks. And hey, Ottawa did it. With 18 games left on the docket and matchups against Buffalo (2) and Carolina circled ahead on the calendar, however, there are still more than enough points on the board to get the Leafs where they want to be at season’s end. Expectations in check, getting a point out of Philly tonight has to be considered a bonus.