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Leafs Almost Singing the Blues

Posted By RJ Emptage On Jan 6 2011 @ 11:23 pm In Toronto Maple Leafs | No Comments


The Toronto Maple Leafs kicked off 2011 with a convincing victory over the Ottawa Senators, and with rookie goaltender James Reimer in goal and displaying a strong effort, Head Coach Ron Wilson saw fit to give Reimer the nod when the Leafs welcomed the Boston Bruins to town on Monday. Although a loss, Reimer’s second career start resembled his first. A calm and collective display against a good Bruins team, which may have swayed to his favor, if not for a Marc Savard goal off the forearm of Francois Beauchemin. Wilson, who played coy with the media regarding Reimer’s start gave the youngster a vote of confidence for his influence on the team throughout the two contests.

“He made a number of great saves and he handled himself really well. He’s calm and brings a calming effect on our defense so far.”

The calming effect however wouldn’t be enough to reward him a third straight start. Knowing that points must begin to mount in bunches, Wilson handed the reigns in goal back to Jonas Gustavsson, as the Leafs welcomed the St. Louis Blues to Toronto for a rare meeting between the two teams. For the Leaf’s sake the rarity is a blessing, considering the Blues have not left Toronto on the losing end of things in their past eight trips. In fact not since Feb. 4 1998 have the Blues dropped a game in Toronto; a stat which doesn’t bode well for a Leafs team desperate for wins.

The Leafs looked to reverse that trend and got to it early with the game’s first goal just 15 seconds into the first period. Coming out from behind the net, Kris Versteeg was able to get the shot away with Colby Armstrong holding court in front of Jaroslav Halak. The puck would deflect off a screening Armstrong, giving Toronto the quick 1-0 lead. The Blues would get on the board minutes after as the Leafs began to scramble. Keeping the former Leaf tradition alive, Alex Steen would beat Gustavsson with a sharp angle shot and tie the game for the Blues. The mistakes would continue for the Leafs and consistent turnovers would eventually cost them. Without any outlet  support, Nikolai Kulemin sent the puck into the middle of the ice, right onto the stick of Matt D’agostini who had a clear path to the net. Gustavsson would make the first save, but with David Backes on the doorstep for the rebound he was unable to bail his team out completely. Backes would record his second point of the night and after taking advantage of the Leafs glaring mistakes, the Blues headed into the first intermission with a 2-1 lead.

The Leafs would come out in the second period and looked to have corrected their first period issues. Able to establish a forecheck and strong pressure, they found their way back into the game. Clarke MacArthur set up Mikhail Grabovski and the hottest Leaf tallied his team leading 15th goal of the season. With 10 goals in 13 games, Grabovski seemed to lift his team and they capitalized on their second period surge. Colby Armstrong made a nifty back hand pass from behind the net and Kris Versteeg made no mistake, beating Jaroslav Halak and finding the back of the net for the go ahead goal. Able to sustain their pressure and keep rolling for a 3 minute flurry, the Leafs chased Halak from the net on a steal by Phil Kessel. Kessel would pick off a Vladamir Sobotka pass and beat Halak for the 4-2 lead. Head Coach Davis Payne would call on Ty Conklin for relief and the Blues would escape the second period lucky to be down by just 2.

The third period saw the Leafs widen the gap early as Phil Kessel regained the team’s scoring lead from Mikhail Grabovski. Kessel would hop over the boards and sneak in behind the Blue’s defense. With Mike Komisarek finding him with the stretch pass, Kessel broke in and beat Conklin for his sencond of the game and his 16th of the season. Shortly after, the Blues would utilize a mad scramble to inch their way back into the game. With the puck rolling through Gustavsson’s legs, Brad Winchester would shovel him into the net. The play would be reviewed, however it was ruled that the puck did cross the line prior to Winchester shoveling the Leaf’s netminder. The play lifted the Blues and they would force the Leafs into third period tension. With a Luke Schenn clearing attempt bobbled in the officials skates, Eric Brewer would find the puck and beat Gustavsson, putting his team within 1. On the heels of a disastrous Team Canada collapse, the Leafs would find themselves on the same side of a similar three goal slide. Matt D’agostini would take advantage of a springing bounce and broke in on the Leaf’s goal, completing the comeback and beating Gustavsson with a move to his backhand. The wild turn of events would see the game destined for overtime, although a shaky play by Gustavsson late was close to proving otherwise. Unable to track the puck and cover it, Gustavsson would scramble in his crease and somehow the Leafs would escape and the extra frame would be needed in a game that should have been over in the third period.

The overtime would provide some tense moments for both teams, mostly the overwhelmed Gustavsson who seemingly feared everything that came at him. With Kris Versteeg unable to convert a Leaf’s chance the other way, a shootout would decide what turned out to be a thrilling contest.

An extra round would be required in the nail biter, and with Mikhail Grabovski leading the way with his beautiful spin around move, the Leafs were able to savor the game. Gustavsson, who was beat on the first two chances and looked to have lost all confidence was able to rebound with a few saves following goals by Kris Versteeg and Tyler Bozak. With the near collapse coming full-circle, the Leafs would need to quickly put this one behind them, and surely take lessons from what could have been a shameful result in a game that was well in their hands.

After the game Head Coach Ron Wilson had an interesting analogy on his team’s third period collapse, and with strong ties to the American Hockey Program, perhaps a slight verbal jab to that of Team Canada one night earlier.

“Like we saw last night, when the banana peel is on the ice you tend to slip on it. We took a 5-2 lead and we got really sloppy in the back-end. We didn’t move our feet and we weren’t defending the good ice. We were staring at the puck and that’s what happened on the tying goal. At least we found a way to get it to overtime and a shootout and found a way to get an extra point.”

The confidence of Jonas Gustavsson shifted rather swiftly and it seems as if that may lead Wilson to lean on young James Reimer for Saturday’s game against the Thrashers. Crediting Reimer for his calming influence on the team, and with Gustavsson’s shaky play creating anything but, Wilson’s choice may have been made before the game ended.

“Yeah he’s (Reimer) played a few good games for us and gave us a chance to win. Tonight was a tough game for Jonas so he’ll (Reimer) probably get the start on Saturday. Probably I say.”

Whether it is Reimer or Gustavsson in goal for the Leafs, one thing is certain. A strong focus on a complete game must be in the work and mindset of the players. Embarking on a four game road trip to the U.S. West Coast, the margin for error will decrease drastically. As a team running out of room for such error, this Leaf group will need to use the positives from this game as motivation towards a string of victories. Coming up to the halfway mark of the season and in a position much like last year, it will take that motivation to simply climb into respectability. Climbing into playoff contention however, remains a dark and taunting task.

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