GDT: Leafs at Islanders (7 p.m., Sportsnet)

GDT: Leafs at Islanders (7 p.m., Sportsnet)

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Photo: Kathy Kmonicek

After posting one shutout in his first 81 career NHL games, Jonas Gustavsson now has three in his last eight outings, with the latest coming last night against tonight’s opponent, the New York Islanders. He’s been a big part of the Leafs allowing only 22 goals in their last 11 games. Despite the defensive improvement, the Leafs have only posted a 6-5 record in that span, however, as the offense was limited to two or less on five occasions.

Listening to a Greg Cronin interview today, it was obvious there was a realization that relying on the high scoring of mainly two individuals was not going to be a sustainable way of winning hockey games, and that the team’s quality of defensive play was going to take on a huge role as the games tighten up down the stretch run.

As Cronin said, it starts with the goaltending, and Gustavsson was flawless last night. But that’s not to say he was tested too rigorously, and I would say his three shutouts as a whole are not merely a product of a goalie playing lights out, but also partially attributable to a team that’s showing an improved commitment to the defensive side of the game. Cronin remarked on the Leafs‘  tendency earlier in the season to cheat and curl out on the backcheck to get a head start on the breakout, and improved defensive discipline last night from the forwards in particular helped keep the Isles, and their red hot top line, off the board.

Gustavsson will be back between the pipes for the Leafs‘ final game before the week-long All Star break, while Al Montoya starts for the Islanders. Depending on how the Capitals fare tonight, tonight’s game could determine if the Leafs enter the break in or out of a playoff spot. The Leafs are 2-5-1 in the second game of a back to back as it seems the second game in as many nights usually takes some wind out of the Leafs’ speed advantage. The message will be to dig deep and enter the break on the right note. If memory serves me right, the Leafs played the Islanders on Rhode Island in a back to back situation the game before the Christmas break, as well. Let’s hope for the same result.

Alec Brownscombe is the founder of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He was also the editor of the 2009-12 Maple Leafs Annuals. You can contact him at [email protected]
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