Game Day: Maple Leafs at Florida Panthers (7:30 p.m., SNet)


For his and all of our sakes, I hope the team can stay on the winning track once David Clarkson returns, starting tonight in Florida. The contract, the lack of production and the injuries have already entangled him in a formidable web of bad contract angst, mounting pressure and disappointment, as his first season as a Leaf on his new big deal has started to get away from him. Having this team immediately slow down from their blistering pace once he comes back would just be another angle to the whole thing, one he really rather avoid at this point. The Leafs are 14-6-1 without Clarkson, and around .500 with him.

Which, to me, indicates Clarkson’s bad season could partially be about bad timing. He missed the hot start due to suspension, and we’re overstepping if we’re going to blame him from the dips in production in November and December on the part of Lupul, Kadri, JvR and Kessel. Bozak wasn’t even around for most of that period and the top line was certainly not tearing the league apart as it is now.

On the whole, Clarkson’s impact in New Jersey was not a total fluke or illusion. He has, however, had a hard time fitting in on this team and there’s been a whole host of mitigating factors, between suspension, injuries, the timing of those injuries, and him finally finding some early signs of chemistry with Bolland only to have Bolland get hurt. Somewhere amid all this frustration comes the tendency – especially for a heart-on-the-sleeve player like Clarkson, in the high-pressure situation of trying to justify a contract that everyone knew was an overpayment – to simply want to do too much and to start playing outside the confines of what made him successful in the first place.

Tonight, he’s likely to play with Mason Raymond and Jay McClement on line three. His best bet for turning his season around may come when Bolland returns, but this game against Florida on the road is not a bad situation to start to get his feet under him again. Clarkson will be picking up a nine-game pointless streak in progress. I maintain hope that Bolland and Clarkson together on line three can be a great combination after the Break and one that gives the team a hell of an all-purposed checking line come playoff time.

Lineup and Matchup Notes

Peter Holland and Carter Ashton both will not play tonight. Jerred Smithson from the looks of it will play alongside Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren on line four, which means 2-3 minutes except for Smithson, who may get some PK time. I thought this experiment was over after it cost the Leafs the game versus San Jose, but injuries have complicated things. At least, in Clarkson, McClement and Raymond, the Leafs will have a third line that can maybe chip in.

Will the third time be the charm in terms of the Leafs‘ first period performance against the Panthers? The Leafs should remember this Florida team isn’t bad enough to be unready from puck drop and not pay the price for it. They’ve fallen behind 2-0 in both games versus Florida, but thankfully mounted a comeback a week ago today by putting six past Scott Clemmensen.

Tim Thomas will start for the Panthers tonight. The Leafs haven’t faced Thomas since he took off into the woods for a year with his doomsday cult.

Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul all enter this one lightning hot, and if the Leafs take the opponent seriously there should be no reason why they can’t at least score enough to continue their winning streak to four. The Panthers have, however, been able to score against the Leafs with six goals over the two meetings (both teams are 1-1 through two games in the season series).

Bernier Starting