The Toronto Maple Leafs ended their four gameÂ winning streak with some controversy on Thursday in Phoenix. A Mike Brown hit on Ed Jovanovski caused an uproar and seemed to spark the Coyotes as they took a bite out of the Leafs stride with four third period goals to seal the victory. The recent surge from the Leafs, and especially the play of young goaltender James Reimer, had increased optimism among Leafs Nation surrounding a potential playoff push in the second half of the season. It was that optimism which fueled a variety of debates following the loss as a disciplinary hearing awaited Brown and injuries affected the roster status, leading to the inevitable AHL return of Reimer to the Toronto Marlies.
In the wake of a three game suspension handed to Brown and with a healthy J.S. Gigeure returning to action, the Leafs welcomed the Calgary Flames. It marked the return to Toronto for two Ex-Leafs in Matt Stajan and Niklas Hagman. Although the demotion of Reimer caused quite a stir, the contributions from the farm continued as German forward Marcel Mueller was called up and made his NHL debut skating on a line with fellow Marlie Darryl Boyce and Colby Armstrong. Snapping a four game losing skid on Friday in Ottawa, the Flames were looking to heat up during their Eastern road trip while the Leafs, who have enjoyed the taste of success recently, looked to find their way back into the win column. Both teams would take their intentions to the ice in an All Canadian Match-Up on Hockey Night in Canada.
In the first period, the expected atmosphere was hard to be found. With both teams hesitant to trade chances, and despite a power play for each, the opening frame progressed at a stagnant pace. A few opportunities from a last minute barrage by the Flames led J.S. Giguere to bail out his team’s defensive woes in his first game back from injury. As Giguere settled things down, the game would head into the first intermission at a scoreless tie.
The slow pace evident in the first continued throughout the second period as both teams seemed to lack the spark necessary to create a jump in their game. The Flames, although unable to sustain offensive pressure, were able to muster some shots towards the goal (22). The Leafs would have ended the middle frame with just 8 if not for a few late chances. The dulling play affected the scoreboard and left the game tied at zero heading into the second intermission.
For fans at the Air Canada Centre, this game was a hard bargain for entertainment until mid way through the third period when tthe pace picked up a notch. Matt Stajan used the former Leaf inspiration to finally put the scoreboard to use and bring a goal to this game. After the Leafs’ defensive coverage broke down in front of the net, Stajan was left to take liberties on the chance and put his third whack at the puck past a sprawling Gigeure. The goal was Stajan’s third and his first on the road in what has been a frustrating season for the Leaf Draft Pick. With the Leaf offense missing all night, the game seemed destined to end there until Ales Kotalik took a hooking penalty, leaving the Flames shorthanded with 2 minutes to go in the game. Amounting some pressure on the powerplay, the Leafs were able to pull Gigeure for the extra attacker. As Colby Armstrong caused havoc in front of Mikka Kiprusoff, Mikhail Grabovski found the rebound from a Clarke MacArthur shot and tied the game late for the Leafs.
The extra frame provided some frantic action and a Flames powerplay but wouldn’t be enough to decide the game. Almost a sure bet after the first period, a shootout would be needed and brought out the height of tonight’s action. With Tyler Bozak and Colby Armstrong beating Kiprusoff with similar moves, the Leafs were poised to steal the victory. A questionable and reviewed goal by Alex Tanguay put the Flames back into it and after a goal by Ales Kotalik, Oli Jokinen was able to seal it as he beat Gigeure short-side for the 2-1 win.
A quiet and near agonizing pace displayed through the first and second period made this game difficult to read for the Leafs. While they can take momentum from the late goal and the point salvaged in the process, the trouble to find their legs has been an issue throughout the season. Although not admitting it a concern, Head Coach Ron Wilson alluded to the team’s skating as a cause for demise in their return home from a long road trip.
“I thought we played well but for most of the night we were in a real struggle up hill. And when you’re not skating you start to pass the puck too much and we didn’t start skating until the third period. We passed up way too many shots early in the game. But we hung in there and we battled even though we didn’t have the energy from the schedule.”
The battle back Wilson referred to is the key component for the Leafs. Able to put together a nice streak and build some confidence on the road, the character within this team that was visible early in the season seemed to redefine itself. A healthy Colby Armstrong has provided some energy and enthusiasm along with a few AHL call-ups in Darryl Boyce and Joey Crabb. The consistent production from the line of Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin has allowed Wilson to keep his lines in check and with Phil Kessel finding his scoring touch recently, the Leafs have been able to establish an offensive attack. With some much needed rest, the Leafs will have plenty of time to get their legs going and find that attack as they won’t play until Wednesday when they head to the “Big Apple” to take on the Rangers.