All the talk leading up to Monday’s contest between the Atlanta Thrashers and the Toronto Maple Leafs was focused on the comments made by Phil Kessel at practice Sunday. As is the case in sports, winning solves a lot of problems, so it was important that the Leafs come out strong and play a solid 60 minutes – if only to silence some of the negativity surrounding the team after the weekend. Especially after coming off a good week in which the Leafs picked up a shootout win over the Florida Panthers and then a shutout victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, a strong response to the poor effort in Buffalo was necessary to prevent a slide down the standings.
The opening shift of the game saw the Leafs controlling play in the Atlanta zone until Phil Kessel took an unfortunate hooking penalty to put Atlanta on their first powerplay of the game. Evander Kane was the recipient of a fortuitous bounce in the slot and put Atlanta up 1-0 under three minutes into the game. The parade to the penalty box didn’t stop, however, as the Leafs took six minors in the first period alone, giving Atlanta plenty of chances to take control of the game. Giguere came up big on multiple occasions to keep the Thrashers from running away with the game before the end of the opening frame.
Dustin Byfuglien extended the Atlanta lead with Bozak and Phaneuf in the penalty box, but it was his celebration that seemed to irk fans and the Leafs alike. Following the second Atlanta goal, the Leafs seemed to step their game up a notch; an encouraging sign for Leafs fans who have seen their team fold up after a bad start too many times in recent years. All told, the Leafs did well to escape the first period down only 2-0, and Giguere was to thank for that.
After killing off the remaining fifty-eight seconds of a Komisarek tripping penalty to open the second period, Dion Phaneuf took a pass from Grabovski and blasted it past Ondrej Pavelec for just his 2nd goal of the season. Just two and a half minutes later, Mikhail Grabovski scored on a centering pass from Clarke MacArthur on the powerplay to tie the game up at 2-2. It looked as though the Leafs had captured all the momentum, but former Leaf Nik Antropov scored just thirty-nine seconds later to regain the lead for the Thrashers. Late in the period, Tomas Kaberle made an excellent play by firing a hard pass that Clarke MacArthur was able to deflect over Pavelec for his 17th goal of the season, matching his career high.
Going into the 3rd period tied 3-3 is more than the opening period promised and the Leafs came out hungry, with Nikolia Kulemin capitalizing on an awful giveaway by Byfuglien just over four minutes into the final frame. A major factor in the shift of momentum for Toronto was their improved discipline after the first period: only one minor penalty was assessed to the Leafs over the final two periods, a big improvement over the six minors taken in first twenty minutes.
Tim (effin’) Brent extended the lead to 5-3 halfway through the period after Crabb made a strong play in the corner and then followed the play to the front of the net. Andrew Ladd brought Atlanta to within one goal with nine minutes to play, but the Leafs were able to shut them down and take the valuable two points from a team they’re chasing. Phil Kessel looked dangerous on multiple occasions in this game, as he did against Carolina this past Thursday. Several times he took the puck to the net, into the “dirty areas”, and he will be rewarded in the near future. Perhaps being shifted onto a line with Grabovski and Kulemin will give him a jump-start.
Fans have to be encouraged with effort brought forth by the Leafs tonight, after a tough outing in Buffalo on Saturday. Despite getting into penalty trouble in the first period, the team was able to keep Atlanta from running away with the game before the Leafs found theirs in the second and beyond. The Leafs have now won 3 of 4, all over teams they need to pass in order to escape the lottery and make a push for the playoffs, and have no time to rest as they are in Long Island Tuesday night to take on the Islanders.