The Maple Leafs played their best game of the season, but were dealt a taste of their own medicine with a sublime goaltending effort by Martin Jones, ultimately thwarting a plethora of fantastic chances and a game full of uncharacteristic sustained offensive zone time by the Leafs.
The first minute of the game had the makings of yet another one of those games where Toronto was going to spend way too much time in their own zone (“The Leafs have difficulty getting the puck out of their zone™”).
That quickly changed at the 18 minute mark, with the Rielly/Gardiner pairing moving the puck with efficiency and in the proper direction.
The initial fears of the game going the way of L.A. domination were scuttled at around the 16:50 mark; Lupul’s first touch was a scoring chance for Kulemin off the rush and should have been buried but for a fantastic save.
Come the five minute mark of the first, the shots were 5-3 Toronto. LA’s slow defense was having to hurry pucks on the breakout, and Toronto seemed more committed to a fast forecheck. If not physical, they were putting a lot of pressure on the Kings, who were being made to look like, well, the Leafs on any given night this season.
The penalty kill still continues to plague the Leafs game, and sunk them early. Despite taking the play to the slower LA Kings team, this was their chance to set up, control the play and get their 1-0 marker, which as an elite team they proceeded to do.
Despite the score, the shots were 9-4 Toronto late in the first.
One of the habits creeping into the Leafs’ heads more and more: their inability to close out periods and games. Inexplicably, the last minute and a half the Leafs were hemmed in and looked like they would concede another goal.
The Leafs got off to a nice start to the 2nd period.
Toronto’s defence was pinching and activating on the rush regularly, and it was giving the Leafs a chance to show off their speed more than they have this season. The D pinching down the wall was giving the Leafs more zone time than as long as I can remember, as reflected in the shot and shot attempt count (as close to a proxy for possession as we have). The Rielly/Gardiner pairing got regular shifts with the Kessel-Kadri-JVR, and they were fantastic in every area of the ice. They held the zone well, made great tape-to-tape saucer passes, pinched with great timing and, of course, lugged the puck as you would expect; lots of clean zone exits, zone entries, and controlled set ups in the offensive zone.
With Phaneuf injured, it’s forced Carlyle to do things he never tries, which is having Gardiner/Rielly on PP#1 and Gardiner/Franson on PP#2. The puck carrying duties went to Gardiner on the breakout and the Leafs achieved easy zone entries by not having, without fail, Phaneuf and Franson on the same PP unit. The dynamic duo are able to pinch with efficiency and still have the skating ability to get back into position on time.
As the 2nd period was winding down, it was apparent that this was the longest stretch of good hockey Toronto has sustained this season.
The Leafs finally evened the game on a 5 on 3 powerplay. It was Gardiner/Franson again, with Leafs getting a flurry of great chances. More great play from the Leafs in front of the net drew a penalty. On the ensuing 5 on 3, Frason scored on a beautiful switch with Kessel on the powerplay. Franson and Gardiner finally called the audible and switched sides (which Carlyle seems to coach them not to do), opening up two one-time point shots.
The Kings were previously a perfect 8 for 8 on 5 on 3s, but that changed tonight. The small victories, right?
That was a hell of a 2nd period for Toronto.
The Leafs were exposing the LA Kings lack of speed; worth noting the Kings were in the 2nd leg of a back-to-back on the road.
A note I made before the game: I was hoping that the addition of Lupul would open up the lines a bit for Toronto and allow Lupul to avoid some coverage, and for the Leafs to roll two lines properly. He looked like the Lupul of old and had a number of great chances tonight; he was hard on the puck and drove the net with reckless abandon. It makes the Leafs a tougher team to play against.
The pinching was a bonus for the Leafs tonight, but it has also cost them with the go-ahead goal by Jeff Carter. A pinch from Ranger resulted in a 2 on 1. Fraser was in a tough spot; he can play it like a 2-on-1 and take the pass away, which he does for the most part, or take the shooter with Ranger closing in on the pass option. He correctly elected for the latter and Carter got off a sneaky hard shot through Bernier’s legs to make it 2-1 Kings. That’s a game breaker goal that Bernier has to save and he didn’t. This was a decidedly average performance from Bernier; he needed to be better tonight. You wonder if starting Reimer against a team that doesn’t have the book on the goalie (like LA did) might have been the better decision.
Once again evident in the period, Gardiner and Rielly were dynamic tonight. Where they usually are a high-risk/reward combination, they were all reward tonight and moved the puck up the ice with skill and speed, making plays that are both exciting and effective. They beat LA’s heavy forecheck, as puck-moving defenseman are want to do, when they play the game at a high speed.
There was a surefire holding penalty on the JVR rush missed by the refs late in this period. It was a free-hand hold, which is usually a call on every.single.play in every.single.nhl.game. While my tinfoil hat is currently at the dry cleaners, the calls against the Leafs this year are, quite frankly, staggering. I’ve never seen officiating as poor in the NHL in my decades of watching hockey. Perhaps coming out of the 2005 lockout when new rules were implemented, but that’s not saying much.
JVR blew by Regehr, but Regehr impeded JvR’s progress with the loose arm. That’s called holding.
Shortly thereafter, Kadri got cross checked and absolutely filled in from behind by Voynov without the puck.
Alas, Kyle Clifford came back the other way and scored. Insert dagger here. Game over.