Toronto gave up five goals for the second consecutive game as John Tavares and the Islanders took tonight’s tilt decisively. The Leafs built a two-goal lead on their first two shots of the game before paying their dues to the tune of five consecutive goals against on account of inattentive and sloppy play.
1. After a lackluster two-game set earlier this week, Toronto got off to a great start in tonight’s dance with the Isles. This involved a rousing penalty kill (5-on-3) that featured a couple of fantastic stops by Reimer. The PK continues to be a surprisingly strong spot for this young team. Of course, the massive improvement in this area is a result of acquired and improved personnel (eg. McClement and Reimer). But, the sense of confidence and belief in a structured system is much more evident in this year’s incarnation of the Leafs. They’ve expressed this in quotables throughout the season and the effect of this confidence in a system on the ice should never be underestimated.
2. The team and crowd drew on the energy of this kill, culminating with yet another filthy Joffrey Lupul goal. Similar to his magical display of skating and strength earlier this season, he walked around Matt Carkner and gave Toronto the early lead.
3. The Leafs followed this up with another skillful showing on a special team, as Bozak fed a backhand pass to Franson for a pretty powerplay goal. In many of Toronto’s fringe non-playoff years of recent history, this caliber of special teams would have probably been the difference maker with respect to their presence in the post-season. However, it would have not made them a true contender, as evidenced by the ease with which a team can fall apart at even strength.
4. Truly, with a 2-0 lead, I’m sure there were many that sat back in their seats a bit – perhaps expecting this to be an “easy” game typical of the Islanders of yesteryear. There’s a good chance that idea flitted through the heads of a few Leafs as the wheels fell of the wagon at that point. In particular, the Phaneuf-Gardiner pair was victimized on multiple occasions as
the Islanders Tavares stormed back into the driver’s seat with three consecutive goals. Jake Gardiner got caught chasing up high on New York’s first goal and Tavares whisked a pass through Kadri to ex-Leaf Boyes for the goal. On the third goal, it was Phaneuf’s turn to get caught up high. Once again, Tavares made them pay. Get well soon, Carl Gunnarsson. Dion misses you.
5. On that note, Tavares deserves serious consideration for the Hart Trophy this year. He epitomized what that award embodies as his team would not have won without him tonight. The type of player that can snatch momentum from the jaws of defeat and maintain it in the face of adversity is as valuable as they come.
6. The Leafs still looked sloppy coming into the second period, with turnovers and failed breakouts aplenty. However, a furious and productive shift eight minutes into the second by the newly (re)incarnated Kulemin-McClement-Komarov line got the club back on track. This shift sparked an offensively dominant showing by the Bozak line, after which the Kadri line came on and forced an icing. With Toronto only down one goal it seemed that the team was preparing to mount a push back. As mentioned above, John Tavares happened and the Leafs were down by two.
7. The appeal of Kulemin-McClement-Komarov as a checking line is undeniable. A fierce forecheck and strong cycling game was immediately evident with the trio, but consequently one of Grabovski or Kadri must be bumped to the fourth line (as we all know by this point that Bozak is physically inseparable from Phil Kessel). As such, Grabovski found himself with the Blue Bombers late in the second frame. Toronto’s lineup is a murky picture with everyone healthy and the picture may not truly become clearer until the resolution of Bozak’s UFA status.
8. Toronto’s Belorusian center came out in the third with a great shift on the fourth line. He’s at his best when he uses his speed and characteristic tenacity on the puck, something that he has only done in spurts this campaign. Carlyle rewarded this effort by flanking Grabovski with Lupul and MacArthur on his next shift to good effect. Of course, this relegated Kadri to the fourth line and ideally this mess will resolve itself with the permanent scratching of one of McClaren or Orr before the playoffs.
9. Unfortunately, despite Carlyle’s frantic attempts to foster some spark in his team, it was another night of too many giveaways and shots against that ended in a deserved loss. There were flashes of the fast, forechecking team that we have become familiar with this season, but they were few and too far between. Whether the increasing inconsistency is due to fatigue or the mental repercussions of all but securing a playoff spot is yet to be seen.
10. While James Reimer yielded five goals on the night, this is a loss that falls squarely on the shoulders of those in front of them. For lack of a more accurate technical term, the skaters in blue and white just did not look sharp. It should be considered that this team has showed impressive fortitude and resiliency both on the macro (over the season) and micro (within games) scale this season. One would have hoped that two mediocre performances would be acknowledged and responded to by this team. However, one should expect that consecutive sloppy losses provokes a better response before this weekend’s game against the Senators.
Toronto may not have officially clinched a playoff spot after tonight’s showing, but the post season is right around the corner. This short-term malaise must be addressed by both the players and the coaching staff in conjunction with the inevitable lineup decisions to be made prior to the beginning of the postseason.