The Toronto Maple Leafs did the previously unthinkable, walking into Buffalo and winning an exciting game in overtime. Tonight’s match looked like it may follow the same unsavory fate that has plagued the Leafs at HSBC in recent years when Buffalo tied it up late. But a team devoid of two of their top wingers in Joffrey Lupul and Clarke MacArthur showed fortitude and grabbed a victory in the dying moments of overtime.
1. Before this game started, the makeshift line of Kulemin-Grabovski-McClement raised some eyebrows. Surely it would be better to throw Kadri into JvR’s vacated wing for the offense, while creating a shutdown line of Frattin-McClement-Komarov? Nope. Carlyle is a coach that loves to create “pairs” of players, with the third spot being up for rotation. Thus far, it is obvious that Bozak-Kessel, Grabovski-Kulemin, and Kadri-Komarov will be attached at the hip. Turned out be a good decision by the bench boss, as McClement got on the board early. He exhibited speed, determination on the puck and smart backside pressure all night long. McClement fit in well with Grabovski-Kulemin, whose success as the Mac in the USSR line was heavily reliant on forcing turnovers and being relentless on the puck.
2. Of course, that first McClement goal was only partly the result of fierce board work by Kulemin, and partly the beneficiary of a certain Lebanese’s laser to the top corner of Buffalo’s net. Nazem Kadri had another strong game, with the growing trust of Carlyle evidenced by a bump to the first PP unit in the second period. The difference between this year’s Kadri and previous incarnations lie in the small things. In the second period, as the Leafs attempted to gain the line, he held back at the line. He kept the puck in twice, but more importantly was in proper defensive position when the Sabres came back the other way.
3. A relatively quiet night for James van Riemsdyk. The thought of putting two of our most lethal offensive weapons on the same line is tantalizing, but he is slightly miscast on the wing opposite Phil Kessel. Both players are at their best when they are unloading rubber on their opponents at a high volume. There simply isn’t enough puck for two players that could easily average around four shots on net. Of course, if JvR were to meld into the role of a big body that retrieves the puck and makes plays, a la Joffrey Lupul, this could work. He certainly has the talent and the frame. It remains to be seen whether the coaching staff sees this as a temporary assignment while MacArthur is out, or the beginning of a more permanent position.
4. A much better night for the captain. Dion was probably thankful that he didn’t have to carry the blueline for more than half the game, showing it early by deftly breaking up a 2-on-1 in the first period. Dion receives some unfair flak for his play at times, because he is expected to do it all with often questionable help (no offense to Kostka et al.). When compared to the partners that some of the other top blueliners are privy to, it’s easy to see how a reputable #2 men would solidify Phaneuf’s position as an elite all-around defenseman in the league.
5. Cody. Franson. Often maligned, rarely celebrated. He shone tonight in the offensive end, with his patented “how did he even get that on net?!?” shot coming through on a couple of occasions. He was a difference-maker. It’s easy to see why Barry Trotz gave him so many starts in the o-zone. Hopefully tonight will lead to an increase in confidence all around: in the coaching staff’s willingness to ice him regularly, and in Franson himself.
6. Phil Kessel? The goals will come. Just relax. This message may be more important for Kessel himself to hear than the fans. Toronto’s resident social butterfly is clutching his stick a little too tightly. However, it’s guaranteed that once they start coming the dam will burst open.
7. Matt Frattin fumbled on a 2-on-1 in the first, and redeemed himself with some net drive later in the game. The points have come for Frattin in his time in the bigs this year, but he still has some catching up to do in terms of speed. He’ll be a fixture on the third line this year, rightfully so.
8. Reimer was solid, if not spectacular in net tonight. With the #1 position firmly in his grasp, one would expect Reimer to build on this performance going forward.
9. Leonid Komarov gave us his best Darcy Tucker impression with hits, grit and quality agitating. He drew a penalty with his net drive and avoided the temptation of retaliation, receiving significant congratulations from his teammates and coaches upon doing so. On the other hand, he whiffed on an open shot as Miller was scrambling behind the net, and has yet to show the offensive touch that had him as a point-a-gamer in the KHL. Much like Frattin, there is room for some fine tuning in his game, but he should be making worthwhile contributions all year long.
10. Well, it looks like Frattin needed all of one game to catch up completely. A power forward move on the wing and he roofs it on Ryan Miller with seconds left in overtime. Expect his game to continue on its upward trajectory.
Toronto will look forward to facing
Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals on Thursday night. The Leafs are at risk of falling behind Northeast Division rivals such as the Bruins, Senators and Canadiens (what?) and will be looking to string together some wins.