It took a while, but the Toronto Maple Leafs are finally starting to look comfortable on home ice, and on the ice in general, as one of their better overall team efforts led to a 3-2 win over the New York Islanders on Wednesday night in front of a joyful, loud crowd at the Air Canada Centre.
Jason Blake scored the winner with just under five minutes left in the third period as the Leafs skated away with a hard fought 3-2 win.
Francois Beauchemin and Ian White also scored for Toronto, who improved to 7-2-2 in their last eleven games. Â John Tavares scored both goals for the Islanders.
The Leafs got off to good start scoring the opening two goals of the game, and dominated most of the play until penalties late in the second and early in the third allowed the Islanders to get back into the hockey game.
–The key to tonight’s victory, and the last few victories as well, has been the contribution of the third and fourth lines for this team. Â Ron Wilson has spent the better part of the early season tinkering with different line combinations, and it appears that he has found a group that really, really works for the team right now. Â I have always subscribed to the theory that a coach shouldn’t label his lines, and the effort from the Leafs bottom two proved it tonight. Â Stempniak, Kulemin and Primeau, along with Orr, Wallin and Mayers are proving to be a nice compliment to the top two lines, and are gaining more trust from the coach by the minute. Â The key to any victory lies within a team being able to trust their bottom lines to work hard, tire out opponents, and in some instances, get scoring chances to sway the momentum of the game.
–While I spoke about them in general above, I really want to touch on the play of a few players, beginning with Lee Stempniak. Â While some fans would certainly like to see more scoring output from Stempniak, he has really done a great job at being an effective third line player for the team. Â He has enough speed and skill to make him a threat on the third line, and has also been using his strong physical play to set a tone for the team in general.
–Wayne Primeau is another guy who has been key to the recent turnaround for the Leafs. Â Acquired in a controversial deal which saw fan favourite Anton Stralman jettisoned to Calgary, Primeau has rediscovered that grit and jam that made him a popular player on many of the teams he has worn the sweaters of throughout his career. Â Primeau knows exactly what Ron Wilson wants in a bottom six forward, and Wilson knows exactly what he will get from Primeau in that role. Â He is really trusting him right now, and Primeau is responding to the responsibility and increased ice time.
–I’d be completely remiss if I didn’t speak about Nikolai Kulemin, who is certainly putting together a fine season for the Leafs this year. Â While he may never be the high scorer some thought he would turn into, Kulemin has found a real niche as a hard working, defensive minded player who uses his big body and speed to create plays and draw penalties. Â Kulemin’s attention to detail in the defensive end this season has coach Wilson relying on him in big situations.
–Great job by the defense corps as a whole tonight. Â Beauchemin and Kaberle were their usual steady selves, firing shots from the point and setting up plays on the powerplay and in the offensive zone. Â Mike Komisarek left briefly but returned to be a physical force on the back end. Â Ian White had another great night while Garnet Exelby was quiet but effective. Â Luke Schenn deserves a ton of credit for not letting this season get away from him. Â After a terrible start and talks of benching, scratching, and demotion, Schenn stuck with it, put his nose to the grindstone and just tried to get his game back on track. Â It appears he has done that now. Â A very effective night for Schenn moving the puck in his own zone, and also bringing the physical play. Â His hit on Jon Sim was arguably his biggest hit of the season so far, and the sophomore defenseman has only gotten better as the games have gone on.
–Even though the power play numbers are down with Phil Kessel in the lineup, I like the look of him on the top unit. Â It obviously has it’s many advantages. Â A trigger man, Kessel does a great job of walking off the half wall and disguising his lethal release. Â And if he doesn’t have the open opportunity to get a shot off himself, teams trying to kill the penalty usually over compensate when it comes to covering him, which allows a lot of extra attention to be paid to Kessel, which allows other members of the power play unit more time and space.
–A few weeks ago, when things really weren’t going that well for the Maple Leafs, there were some people calling for the firing of Ron Wilson. Â I thought it was nuts at the time, and I think looking at where this team is now, it’s clearly not the right direction to go. Â Wilson is a meticulous teacher, always demanding perfection on every detail of his game plans and schemes. Â While it may have taken some players longer than others to understand and properly execute the system, we’re clearly seeing the rewards of it now. Â Ron Wilson is a great teacher, and is definitely the right person to push the buttons behind this team.
–After another solid 60 minute effort, one can’t help but wonder a little bit if Vesa Toskala has finally turned the corner. Â He had a terrible year last season, and got off to a slow start this year with injuries and inconsistent play, but Toskala’s last few games in which he started have been for the most part, quality starts, and he did a great job tonight of making big saves, especially in the late stages of the second and the third period, when Toronto needed it the most. Â As we saw early in the year, having confidence in your goalie can make all the difference in the world, and I think Toskala is slowly rebuilding that trust with his teammates. Â Tonight’s game should go a long way towards Toskala gaining confidence. Â He has certainly turned it around, and while this team has strung together a nice run in the last three weeks or so, goaltending will of course be the key to this team if they intend to entertain ideas of post season hockey.
–I liked tonight not only for the two points it provided the Leafs, but also for the fact that it could go a long way as a real confidence builder for this team, who are looking to build on quality efforts in the last few weeks as they look to dig themselves out of the early season hole. Â The Leafs got off to a good start, and when the Islanders began to take over the game, the Leafs, and Toskala, bent but didn’t break. Â They survived the second period when they got into penalty trouble. Â The third was a different story, but it was again an area where the Leafs could have easily folded their tent and went home after giving up the tying goal. Â But they didn’t. Â They stuck to the plan, and the reward was a big victory and two points on home ice.
–I don’t think I am breaking news to anyone when I say that this Leafs team isn’t exactly the most talented in the Eastern Conference. Â They are, however, getting the job done due to their hard work and speed on the ice. Â As legendary coach Herb Brooks would say; “You don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone.” Â This is probably a true statement when talking about the 2009-2010 Toronto Maple Leafs. Â But they realize that, and seem to be a team fully prepared to pay the physical and mental price that it takes to do the little things right to win hockey games and grab points. Â All four lines did a great job tonight of grinding it out, cycling the puck, and using their speed to get chances in the offensive zone.
–Of course it was also very important for the Leafs to win this game in regulation. Â As noted, they dug themselves quite a hole to start the season, and while I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s insurmountable, it is crucial that they win as many games as possible in the 60 minute regulation time, particularly games against their own conference.
The Leafs are back in action again tomorrow night, taking on the Boston Bruins and looking to exact revenge for Saturday’s Beantown beat down.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m the new guy, Derek Harmsworth. Â I have been a Leafs blogger for about three years, and a fan my entire life. Â I’m always up for talkin’ puck, so if you ever want to get in touch, feel free to drop me a word any time at firstname.lastname@example.org