Toronto overcame a slow start on the second night of a back-to-back set to close out the league-worst Florida Panthers at home. The game featured the return of Joffrey Lupul to the Kessel line, simultaneously heralding the revival of said line as contributing members of the team.
1. This thought was written before the game started, because it is true and relevant regardless of the outcome: games such as tonight’s are as much a “must win” as exists in this league. To be a playoff team, games against the worst club in the league need to garner you two points. Of course, no game in the NHL is a guaranteed win, meaning that the same work ethic and effort applied against a team like Boston should be present to put away a squad such as the Panthers.
2. Randy Carlyle shuffled his lines after a dismal first period in an effort to produce some more offense. Of course, this meant Lupul was back with his old running-mates in Bozak and Kessel. The writing was on the wall as the Bozak line has not produced and you could see Carlyle’s ire focused on Van Riemsdyk with last game’s third period benching. While the tandem of Lupul and Kadri has a potential for production and creativity that is nearly unmatched in Toronto, it was a shakeup that made sense. We know what Lupul and Kessel can do together. And really, who has Kadri been with that he hasn’t made better? This could be a swap that benefits all involved parties.
3. Phaneuf’s goal was part of a second period push that saw Toronto come to their senses. The ideal team would have come out roaring in the first, knowing they had the personnel and drive to put away a weak Florida team. The reality is that a second game in two nights scenario fed a mental lapse that saw this young team fall short in the first. It’s a testament to the leadership and coaching that they found this as thoroughly unacceptable as their couchbound fans, coming out firing in the second. The play continued to ramp up after the Phaneuf goal as the Maple Leafs smelled blood, culminating in a power play opportunity with just under seven minutes to go.
4. On the same powerplay, Marcel Goc’s shorthanded breakaway was foiled by a furiously backchecking Phil Kessel. It’s a really easy trap to label Kessel as a one-dimensional player – his prolific offense and tendency to avoid physicality are his defining characteristics. But, similar to Alexander Semin, his speed, undeniable game sense, and skillful stick make him a very effective two-way force.
5. Mikhail Grabovski and Matt Frattin were both flying tonight, as the duo have clearly missed the warming embrace of the scoresheet in recent games. It’s a combination with potential, as the two players share high levels of feistiness, speed, and an accurate shot. The best fit on the left wing of these two would be a playmaking winger, which Clarke MacArthur (out with a UBI) is fairly well suited for. Ryan Hamilton brought some more jam and hustle to this line, bringing it closer to the schema of a typical third line than we’ve seen in a while. Later, with Hamilton bumped to Kadri’s line in favour of the displaced Van Riemsdyk, the line’s dynamic once again changed.
6. The in-game coaching adjustments paid immediate dividends, as Lupul finished off a pretty passing play in front of the net to give Toronto a lead early in the third. Historically, Bozak and Kessel have done much better with Lupul by their side. Clearly, they flourish as a trio and there’s something to be said for the chemistry they have and the confidence Lupul inspires in Bozak and Kessel. They look to make highly skilled passes much more often with Joffrey on their line.
7. The Panthers responded just 23 seconds later as the resurgent Shawn Matthias lone ranger’d it into the net off of Mike Kostka’s skate. That’s a two-count for Toronto’s defensemen’s skates on the night, as Ben Scrivens did not make many mistakes all told.
8. No longer satisfied with scoring only one goal a game, Lupul tallied his second of the night (for the second time in four games since returning from injury) off yet another beautifully orchestrated play with Kessel and Bozak. The secret to Lupul’s success? Obviously he has the talent to pass and shoot at a level in the same stratosphere as Phil Kessel. More importantly, he has the size and tenacity on the puck to give his teammates extra chances at creating plays. In this instance, he pursued and retrieved a puck near the boards that reset a seemingly dead play in the offensive zone.
9. On that note, one would hope Van Riemdsyk learns from the versatility of Lupul’s game and applies it to his own. Both players have slick hands and are an elite threat in tight to the net. Their wrist shots are hard and accurate. JVR’s edge as a (potential) goal scorer is matched by Lupul’s distinct superiority as a playmaker. However, Joffrey is currently a much better player in general because of his puck pursuit and ability to use his large frame to retrieve pucks. With both players likely to be a feature of Toronto’s forward corps for the near future, one would think the younger JVR has an excellent model for improving his game.
10. The night was not extraordinarily difficult for Ben Scrivens, but he finished with 40 saves and third star of the game honours. Scrivens will perform very well in a backup role going forward. It will be extremely beneficial for Toronto’s goalies to maintain both good health and consistent play going forward, as the Maple Leafs crease has been far too volatile a position in recent memory.
This was an important, necessary win as Toronto maintains breathing room between themselves and the throng of teams battling for the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. The Maple Leafs have a pair of winnable games in their near future against the Hurricanes and Senators, with points in these matches going a long way to assuring this team their first playoff position in far too many years.
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