Redemption after Raleigh


Photo: Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Your Toronto Maple Leafs needed a win in the worst kind of way last night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Responding with a blow out 7 – 1 win (their second in three games), the franchise seems poised to gain ground again in the Eastern Conference.

While incredible, their 7 – 1 victory over the Washington Capitals on Saturday masked the fact that the club had struggled mightily to find consistency and dominate the opposition since the turn of the month.  Through November, the team has done as well as Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul have let them, and one the few nights that the duo hasn’t been dynamic, the Leafs haven’t had enough gun to win games.  Tonight was a night for the ensemble, who have taken center stage in the two blow outs.

Jake Gardiner’s ascension on the blue line has been fraught with growing pains, and the first period last night illustrated the mercurial style of play exhibited by the former Anaheim draft pick.  He showed excellent vision setting up MacArthur’s goal just 41 seconds into the game, then followed up with an ill thought pass that led to a chance and forced Philippe Dupuis to take a penalty.  Later in first, he took a hooking penalty while battling against Steven Stamkos, which resulted in a power play goal.  He then rectified his mistake at the close of the period, laying down to block a Martin St Louis pass to a streaking Stamkos and allow ‘goaltender Gustavsson’ to deaden the play.

He would finish the game strong, drawing a penalty after sifting end-to-end and showcasing his exceptional speed and timing on the ice.  He added another assist, and then made Steven Stamkos throw a hissy fit and get kicked out of the game.  Gardiner’s stat line would read 2 assists, +4, with 8 PIM for good measure.  While there have been bumps and slumps along the way, last night he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is a legitimate NHL calibre defenceman.  Along with Joffrey Lupul, he’s also proved that Brian Burke is smarter than the average bear.

Also worth mentioning is the recent play of Cody Franson, who is making the most of Mike Komisarek’s injury.  Franson has delivered both offensively and defensively in the past three, but it was his willingness to play physically that really stood out.  He broke up two one-on-ones in the first by initiating contact, one time forcing Dominic Moore off the puck; and rushing Steven Stamkos, forcing the former Art Ross winner to snap off a weak, wide shot.  He looked good alongside John-Michael Liles again tonight, indeed better than either of Komisarek or Luke Schenn.

With two spectacular assists, Matt Frattin bought himself job security and Joe Colborne ought to buy him (and maybe the sprawled out Dwayne Roloson) dinner for that gift of a first-career NHL goal.  Skating mostly on a line with Joey Crabb, the trio is quickly proving to be a force in two leagues.  While they are playing more like Leafs than the Marlies right now, once the regulars come back from the IR its almost a certainty that the Ricoh will await at least 2 of the 3 forwards.  Regardless, the club needs depth forwards to score, and last night they answered.

Though the night belonged to first line center Tyler Bozak with two goals and an assist, much should be said about Tim Connolly’s return to his scoring ways.  The American pivot collected 3 points, his fourth multi-point effort in 10 games this season.  Perhaps a testament to the need for rounded scoring, the Leafs have won all four of those games.  No one has ever knocked Connolly’s skill, but it’s impressive nonetheless to see how the 10-year veteran can be a game changer when healthy.

On the flip side, Nikolai Kulemin had another quiet night and has now gone 15 games without a goal.  For a 30 goal scorer, its discouraging that – while the team has managed 16 goals in the last 3 games – he’s only come up with two assists.  He seems to be playing with no confidence in his shot, thrice hesitating in the slot instead of snapping it on net.  The result was two shots deflected wide and one giveaway.  Everyone keeps saying that he does the little things right, but with restricted free agency coming up this offseason, he shouldn’t forget about the big picture or the box scores.

The Leafs head west for their next two, playing winnable games in Dallas on Friday and Anaheim on Sunday.  Despite the loss in Raleigh, the Leafs have a real chance to take a respectable 6 of 8 points on their four-game road swing.  The club sure seems primed for it, seeing solid goaltending from both options and the emergence of reliable offensive depth.  Add to that a top five power play and an improving penalty kill, and there’s ample reason to believe this club is the real deal.

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