That. That was the win that cemented the Leafs as playoff worthy.
1 – The Leafs started nice and bright, carrying the pace early. JvR, contrary to pre-game line projections, started on the top line and he responded admirably to what was being asked of him amid his goal-scoring slump. He got in hard on the forecheck, cycled the puck, made a beautiful behind the back pass to Kessel and went to the net, taking a Cane out of the play and thereby opening the passing lane. Kessel found Bozak cross-crease to make it 1-0 Leafs. JvR had another amazing saucer pass diagonally from blue line to blue line to spring Kessel for a good chance toward the end of the first.
2 – Hate on Bozak for being out his depth, which I do as much as anybody, but the one thing he’s improved this season is his finishing on the chances Kessel and other quality linemates create for him. The once-king of missed ‘gimmes’ has 10 goals this season – a pace of 25 goals over 82 games.
3- The fourth lines hit the ice after the early goal and Westgarth and McLaren squared off for round two of the season. This was probably McLaren’s first lost fight as a Leaf, but good on him to stay upright as he withstood a lot of damage from Westgarth.
4 – I was impressed with Mike Kostka. Yes, he has his limits; he will occasionally get beat to the outside with his mediocre footspeed, and it was frustrating seeing him trotted out for pairing one and first line powerplay minutes early in the season, but more nights than not he’s a clever, solid defenceman. Watching him close tonight, he was rarely out of position, won the majority of his one on one battles and has a knack for coming out with the puck through sticks and legs. Almost always made a safe first pass, too.
5 – Big PKs in the first half of the second period. An awful call, I thought, on Colton Orr for tying Staal’s stick up in front was followed up by a Mike Kostka high-stick for back to back kills with a little 3 on 5 time in between. The Leafs got out of this with the lead thanks to a huge superman save by James Reimer and Liles drawing a powerplay while shorthanded.
6 – On said powerplay, some quick passing up high, with Kessel again stirring the drink, led to PP success as Kessel found Franson on the right side and Franson beat Peters between the legs with a quick release. 2-0 Leafs. We didn’t really need more evidence that Kessel is an excellent passer of the puck, did we? 9 multi-assist games this season for Kessel, four this month alone, and 16 points in the month of March.
7 – The Leafs appeared to be taking control of the game, up 2-0 and heading to another powerplay opportunity at the ten minute mark of the second period. Only for Franson to hit a post and it to bounce to Semin on the half wall while Eric Staal made a great read to take off for the breakaway pass (with worse luck, this could’ve cost him). Staal buried it and made it 2-1. Interesting that the Canes go with their high-skill players on the PK – might have been something the powerplay unit didn’t account for. A mix of bad luck and an amazing play by Staal and Semin turned the momentum against the Leafs just as they looked to be gaining a stranglehold on the game.
8 – A too-many-men brain fart gave the Canes a powerplay right when the Leafs last needed a powerplay against. What the team had been doing so well with their successful airborne clearances wasn’t the case here as Gunnarsson’s attempted clearance was gloved down and kept in at the blueline. Some puck movement later, Semin made it 2-2.
9 – The Staals continued to eat up the Leafs in the third period. Staal, this time Jordan, chipped it along the boards and Gunnarsson and Kadri collided as they tried to turn and chase, leaving Staal to stroll in and snipe the top left corner to make it 3-2 Canes. Not Gunnarsson’s best game tonight.
10 – The fight back from there on out was spine-tingling. Relentless is the best way to describe the late effort and the powerplay display the Leafs put on with about five minutes to go in the third. The puck movement between Lupul, Kessel, Phaneuf and Franson was incredible. They weren’t to be denied as Phaneuf scored his second in as many games to even it up at 3s.
11 – I would’ve been content to call this one a case of the Leafs playing decent but having the luck go against them. They’ve had the luck in their favour quite a bit, so it follows logically that they would lose a game or two in the inverse fashion. There were about 20 different attempts on net that bounced the wrong way before the Leafs tied this game; all of which had me thinking, “this is not our night.” The Leafs overwhelmed luck and refused to quit.
12 – The Leafs leaders were their leaders tonight, and their best players were their best players. Phaneuf looked every bit a worthy Captain. Kessel was a difference maker from start to finish. Lupul was, again, clutch. JvR stepped up to the plate in spite of recent struggles.
13 – Something I’ve come to really respect about Kadri is his ability to take a licking and keep bouncing right back up. He is on Grabovski’s level of “small guy toughness.” He’s a warrior and he’ll be a gamer in the playoffs. He took a puck to the face and a hit from behind tonight and didn’t miss a shift. His skill set reminds me of Ribeiro. His toughness level, thankfully, does not.
14 – It was really nice to see Kulemin grab a goal and assist and pad his totals off a couple of empty netters – the 5-3 and 6-3 goals. He’s a workhorse and deserves more than he gets. The hustle to put in an empty netter, without a Hurricane within 50 feet behind him, sums Kulemin up as a player. Guy doesn’t take a minute off.
15 – Interesting to hear Carlyle talk in the post-game presser about the way the coaching staff has changed their approach to a situation like tonight’s, where the team allowed a lead to slip and needed to find a way to collect themselves and respond. Instead of doing a lot of yelling to try to wake up the team, perhaps resulting in the team getting even tighter, Carlyle spoke about remaining calm and reminding the team to get back to its basics. Sometimes Carlyle gets portrayed as a coach that’s stuck in his ways. I’m not convinced that’s fair, and there’s more examples than just this anecdote.
16 – The Leafs are now ten clear of the Hurricanes, who have three games in hand. The Islanders came back from a 0-2 deficit tonight and beat the Flyers in a shootout, so they’re in 9th place and 7 points back of the Leafs with one game in hand. Some more breathing room gained.
17 – Points in seven straight have put the Leafs in a tie with Ottawa on points for 5th in the Conference. Ottawa has two games in hand but the Leafs play the Senators twice more this season. They best be careful with all this winning or the Leafs won’t get the Southeast Division winner in the playoffs.
18 – This team has a certain swagger about it. You can’t help but be-leaf. Am I speaking on emotion over logic coming off an amazing win? Maybe. Probably. But, unless there’s an upgrade at a price that makes too much sense – seemingly unlikely in a buyers-heavy market – I wouldn’t clamor to add or subtract from this team at the deadline. Let’s just see what they can do.
19 – Last but certainly not least, the goal from Joffrey Lupul that impregnated the patrons of the ACC’s lower bowl:
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