A much needed two points put an end to a five-game winless (but not pointless) skid. Given the Leafs’ three wins in their prior nine were a pair of up-and-down 5-4 wins (vs. Ottawa and NYI) and a late come from behind win over New Jersey, this could be fairly labeled the Leafs’ first consistent performance over three periods since their wins over Buffalo and Philadelphia in late February.
1 – A turnover from Sami Salo allowed the Leafs to get set up in the offensive zone six minutes into the first. A Kadri-led tic tac toe passing play wound up in the back of the net after a deft deflection from Joffrey Lupul beat Mathieu Garon. Lupul’s third in two games since returning made it 1-0 Leafs. Kadri and Lupul seem to be building chemistry quickly. Not that there’s a player who wouldn’t benefit from Kadri’s vision and playmaking ability, but Kadri has found Lupul in position A several times in their small sample size together. Lupul has returned the favour on a few occasions as well.
2 – The Leafs produced some good spells of offensive zone time in first, generating some turnovers on the forecheck. It starts with the Leafs playing with the puck more than without, which is always a good thing, and Liles and Gardiner seemed to be instrumental in this regard. Gardiner came out looking spry, eagerly joining the rush and pushing the pace, and broke up a 2 on 1 defensively. He did a good job evading forecheck pressure throughout the game. Carlyle gave him plenty of ice get into the swing of things, playing Gardiner 8:14 in the first period, nearly two minutes more than Phaneuf. Yes Mr. Hankinson, he’s free. Liles clocked 7:56 beside him in period 1.
3 – Early in the 2nd period, Mark Fraser took care of business versus BJ Crombeen, who went looking for a fight in an effort to wake up his team. Fraser held the edge in the Leafs’ league-leading 30th fight of the season. Always nice to stuff an attempt to turn the momentum.
4 – The Lupul – Kadri – Kulemin line came out the next shift and pinned Tampa Bay’s top line in their end, something they accomplished repeatedly throughout the night. The puck came back to Phaneuf on the point who wired a knuckler over Garon’s glove (perhaps tipped by Kulemin). Kadri’s second assist of the night came on the secondary assist there. 2-0 Leafs.
5 – The top line had their cycle game going strong in the first 40 tonight and got their reward after a good shift seven minutes into the 2nd. A couple of quick passes between Kessel and Fraser preceded Fraser tossing it on net. The puck ricocheted out front to Tyler Bozak, who only had the empty net to beat and the Leafs went up 3-0.
6 – The Lightning collapse was on by this point. Kadri took a pass from Lupul while hanging around the TB blueline in acres of space, entered the zone and found Kulemin, who had the time to hold the puck up, go around one and snap it home. How nice is it to see Kulemin find the net two games in a row? That hasn’t happened since April 2nd and 5th in 2011 for Nikolai. With the primary assist on that goal, Kadri posted his first three assist night of his career.
7 – Unfortunately Lupul may have made it a semi-costly win after he threw a high hit on Hedman that could earn him a game’s suspension. Lupul left his feet a little and the principle point of contact was the head. Lupul doesn’t have a history and that should keep any suspension to a minimum.
8 – With his first NHL goal, Radko Gudas spoiled the shutout effort off a nothing play, throwing the puck on net mostly in an effort to keep the puck in. Reimer saw it late with a little traffic to contend with in front. The Leafs gave up another one on a high skilled play by St. Louis, Tyler Johnson and Cory Conacher to make things a little bit nerve-wracking, but I didn’t have too big of an issue with the Leafs’ third period. They’re not the only team to lay off the pedal a little at 4-0, it could’ve been much worse, and Goal #1 never should’ve been.
9 – Carlyle gave Grabovski some relief from the tough assignments tonight, handing the duty over to Kadri and his line. Grabovski mostly lined up against TB’s third line of Nate Thompson, BJ Crombeen and It PC Labrie. It would’ve been nice to see Mikhail get on the board while the going was good so he could stop thinking about his recent struggles with production, particularly at home (still just one point at home). There were a couple of half chances for him, but he was not particularly visible. Looked like he was gripping the stick pretty tight on an opportunity out front on the powerplay half way through the third.
10 – The Leafs made a pretty quick team look pretty slow and plodding tonight with a good work rate and efficient puck movement. Stamkos was kept quiet outside of a few good half looks in the final five minutes. Always helps when he’s forced to spend significant time in his own end.
The Leafs have stopped the bleeding and move to 16-12-2. Tampa is not a good team, but it was a good tune up game for Gardiner and a much-needed win amid growing concern in Leafs Nation. The Leafs head to Buffalo tomorrow and return home looking for their first win over the Bruins in two years on Saturday.