Lightning Strikes the Leafs Late


    Finishing 0-2 and recording just one goal following their weekend road trip, the Toronto Maple Leafs anxiously returned home to the Air Canada Centre, looking to their steady play there as inspiration to get back on track. Despite their dreadful offense on the road, the Leafs have managed to score 12 goals at home in their last three games, all of which have been victories. Eager to continue that trend, the Leafs would need a flawless effort to contain a hungry Tampa Bay Lightning team. After dropping their last two games, the Lightning’s schedule was blessed with a game against the desperate and fragile Leafs. Although the score was in their favor and the game in their hands, the seemingly inevitable collapse transpired and the Lightning took full advantage, bolting to a 4-3 overtime victory.

    Kris Versteeg’s early goal put Toronto ahead, as he found the back of the net, following a sloppy play by Lightning goaltender Dan Ellis. Unable to handle a bouncing dump-in, Ellis was run into by his own defenseman and the Leafs managed to find the 1-0 lead. If not for a controversial decision to waive off a goal from a Luke Schenn point shot, the Leafs may have carried a 2-0 lead into the first intermission. It was ruled on the play that Clarke MacArthur had interfered with goaltender Dan Ellis, although it looked to be a marginal call and the Leafs bench would agree.

    Tampa seemed to generate some momentum in the second period, and the Leafs found themselves short-handed, an area that sees them at the bottom of the league. That stat would not improve and Ryan Malone put the Lightning on the board as he banked a pass from behind the net off Gustavsson’s skate, tying the game at 1. Nikolai Kulemin was able to regain the Toronto lead with a power-play goal of his own, blasting the puck passed Ellis from the top of the left circle.

    The Leafs looked to be in command when Nikolai Kulemin capitalized on a sloppy play and put the puck into a wide-open net midway through the third period for a 3-1 lead. Joey Crabb’s dump-in took an odd bounce off the end boards and slipped into the slot. As Ellis tried to bat the puck away, he deflected it and Kulemin made no mistake. Along with Kulemin’s second goal of the night, the play saw Joey Crabb record his first point as a Maple Leaf. Looking to avoid a third straight loss, the Lightning would continue to press and closed the gap on a goal from Martin St.Louis. Steve Downie made the play in front and St.Louis stepped around Jonas Gustavsson, putting his team within 1. The weight could virtually be seen on the Leafs shoulders as the momentum shifted towards the Lightning. The will to win and close out the game was still apparent and somewhat evident from the home team, as Mike Brown heroically blocked two hard shots from the point. However, that same sacrifice would not come from the entire Leafs squad, with Tyler Bozak and Kris Versteeg guilty of  a soft attempt to block a shot, and St. Louis tied the game with eight seconds remaining.

    The outcome seemed determined before the puck was even dropped for the extra frame. When it was it wouldn’t take long for the crucial mistake in the form of a mental breakdown. As Luke Schenn gained the zone he elected a poor back-hand pass to Phil Kessel rather than throw the puck on the net or down low. Brett Clark picked off the Schenn pass and sprung a 2 on 1 with Simon Gagne. Showing no rust from his injury, Gagne snapped a wrist shot passed an already frustrated Gustavsson, and sealed the Lightning victory in his first game back.

    It is hard to imagine where the Leafs can look to pry their way out the free-fall they are in. Left without answers to their offensive woes, Nazem Kadri was positioned into the number one slot for the game, proving to be a daunting task for the youngster. Kadri was a turn-over machine throughout the night, coughing up the puck on the rush and at the blue-line. Aside from a rather consistent effort from Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski to go along with a few bounces that finally went their way, the Leafs offense continued to struggle. Those struggles have forced the Leafs into a few risky chances, and some costly plays which Ron Wilson referred to after the game as mental mistakes.

    “We had some missed assignments, a couple of mental mistakes from veteran players that you wouldn’t expect. It was inexcusable.”

    When asked of his obvious view towards the non-goal late in the first period, Wilson would not hold back his displeasure.

    “That should have been a goal. I think when the referee reviews it himself and he sees it, he’ll agree. He said MacArthur was in the crease the whole time and he wasn’t. He was pushed into the crease by the defenseman as the puck was entering the net.”

    Front and center in the loss, and among many is the strong play of Jonas Gustavsson. The “Monster” has given his team the chance to record valuable points on a nightly basis, yet his performances are spoiled by untimely errors in judgement from the players in front of him.

    “We’d love to get him some wins because he deserves them,” center Tim Brent said. “It definitely wasn’t his fault. We let it slip away.”

    There is no question as to the strong  bond surrounding GM Brian Burke, and Head Coach Ron Wilson. It is certain both men withhold a burning desire to win and to do right by this franchise. The potential for them to achieve those goals together however, is decreasing as the losses continue to pile. With no cards left to play, Burke may be forced to look past his longtime friendship with Wilson and make a professional decision. The impression from inside the Leafs organization is that the move seems rather distant and is far from Burke’s intentions. But without much to show in terms of success in his two year tenure with the team and the entire hockey world waiting for something to give, Burke has to be feeling the tension.