Responding well to the 7-0 drumming at the hands of the New York Rangers on Wednesday, the Toronto Maple Leafs kept their memories short and put together a strong performance led by Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur in a 5-2 victory over the Anaheim Ducks Thursday. Facing his former team for the first time since being traded to Toronto, J.S. Giguere provided his mates with stability in goal and allowed their offensive game to transition smoothly while taking control of the game. A leader on and off the ice, Giguere’s poise tends to create a confidence throughout the line-up in front of him, most certainly a trait prompting Leafs President and General Manager Brian Burke to pull the trigger on a deal reuniting the two in Toronto a year ago. Although bombarded with questions regarding his no trade clause earlier that day, Giguere would speak candidly after the game on what the victory over the Ducks meant to the veteran netminder.
“I wanted to just have a strong game. Not because I’m bitter or anything like that, but you want to play well against guys you know. Its a fun challenge. Seeing them this morning you can have a little laugh but when the game comes, they want to score and I want to make a save. Thankfully I made more saves tonight.”
That same effect on his teammates was required for the Leafs to find their groove and begin to mount playoff ground in a game against the Washington Capitals on Hockey Night in Canada.
The first period opened with a steady pace and saw both teams trade early opportunities on the power-play. The Leafs (14th ranked) and the Capitals (17th ranked) were unable to generate their offense with the extra attacker. A quick and bloody bout between Mike Brown, who was returning from a three game suspension, and Matt Hendricks brought out the physical play and opened things up. Dion Phaneuf made his presence felt with two big hits, one on Jason Chimera before later giving Mike Knuble a ride into the boards. Shortly after the action picked up, the opening goal would come, albeit with a bit of controversy. Scoring his 17th of the season, Alex Ovechkin tipped a Jeff Schultz point shot while tangled up with J.S. Giguere, who was at the top of his crease. Giguere, who was clearly upset with the play, stated his case with the officials but to no avail as the Capitals took the 1-0 lead. With the Leafs unable to capitalize on a truncated late power-play, they headed into the first intermission trailing by 1.
The Leafs began the second period with the remainder of the power-play, but following a bench minor for too many men the pace would open up as the teams skated four on four. The Capitals’ penalty expired and the Leafs found themselves on the penalty kill, although a few short-handed chances would suggest otherwise. Sprung on a breakaway, Tyler Bozak carried the tying goal on his stick, but the steady play of Capitals rookie goaltender Braden Holtby kept the Leafs off the board. Not fazed by the young keeper, the Leafs would keep their intensity up and continued to poor on the pressure. The pressure however wouldn’t crack the youngster as he turned away a flurry of late opportunities to hold his team’s 1-0 lead into the second intermission.
Coming into tonight’s contest, the Capitals were questioned on their ability to close out tight games and a quick goal to open the third period would help build their case for change. Mired in a career low goal total, Alex Ovechkin like all good goal scorers found the right spot and his second of the night. A Mike Green point shot would hit Dion Phaneuf and bounce into the slot onto Ovechkin’s stick. Making no mistake, the Washington Captain beat a sprawling J.S. Giguere for the 2-0 lead. Following the goal, the Leafs found some desperation and quickly replied on the young Braden Holtby, creating some momentum. Head Coach Ron Wilson sent his 4th line out to faceoff against a tired Capitals team following an icing. Managing a strong forecheck and pressuring the Capital defense, the move would pay off. After Dion Phaneuf made a great board play at the blue-line, Jay Rosehill got the puck on net and Tim Brent found the back of it, beating the impressive Holtby through the legs. The ice seemed to shift in the Leaf’s favor and they looked like a new team, building tremendous pressure over the next few shifts. The intensity might have seen a Leaf comeback if not for a flawless impression of Ovechkin by Matt Hendricks. Skating with a broken nose suffered in the first period fight with Mike Brown, Hendricks forced Luke Schenn into a costly mistake and walked in, undressing J.S. Giguere to regain the two goal lead. The goal, although deflating, wouldn’t prevent the Leafs from their aim to respond, and Ron Wilson pulled Giguere for the extra attacker with over two minutes to go. The pressure would continue and as he did throughout the entire game, and similarly Holtby continued to display a brilliant performance to hold his team’s lead. With Kris Versteeg on the door step he made a terrific save, fooling CBC’s Jim Hughson and many watching. The save was enough to seal it for the Capitals, but for good measure Ovechkin netted the hat-trick, beating Tomas Kaberle in a foot race for the empty netter and the 4-1 victory.
Last night, as has been the case on many a night this season, there wasn’t a lack of compete from the Leafs bench. Missing a few opportunities and running into an impressive effort by a young goaltender proved to be the difference, although effort points aren’t recognized by the scoreboard. Satisfied with his team’s effort but not the outcome, Leafs Captain Dion Phaneuf admitted their play was lost within the 4-1 score.
“We played hard. They get that second one…it goes off my hand right to him in front. We responded well from that. I think we played better than the score reflected tonight. We played hard and their goalie played very well. We’re not happy about the loss but we have to move forward because we got a big road trip before the break.”
With J.S. Giguere clearly upset in the first period over the Ovechkin goal, Head Coach Ron Wilson was asked if the Leaf netminder had a case with officials.
“No. It was a deflection, and its gaining position in front of the net. I thought Jiggy had a great game but I wouldn’t regard that as goalie interference.”
Part of his team’s hard but unrewarded effort was their ability to generate a net presence. Unable to find the back of the net on many chances and solve the youngster, Wilson pointed to a strong performance from Braden Holtby and the inability of his defense to get pucks through as means for the loss.
“What’s the point of traffic when the D can’t get the shot through. You can have all the traffic you want but you have to get the shot past the first level, and we didn’t do a very good job of that tonight. They’re goalie did make some unbelievable saves. Bozak had a great chance in the third and the guy robs him. You have to give credit to the other team’s goalie.”
Last night was yet another example of the up and down season the Leafs have put together so far. A hard effort, evident on most nights, was visible although a lack of finish when the chances permitted would seal their fate. The balance of consistency that propels a playoff calibre team and separates the good from the, well, not so good cannot be found within this young Leaf team. A trait witnessed routinely since their 4-0 start, the lack of steady results will prove the demise in any quest to regain ground on teams chasing that final post-season spot. This young Leafs squad will be looking like victims of the numbers when all is said and done but so far have put forth a effort strong enough to face themselves in the mirror when doing so.
Twitter – @RJEmptage
About the Author
Written by RJ Emptage
Operations Manager of a retail chain in Southern Ontario (Sports Obsession). Specialize in licensed sports apparel and novelties (Visit sportsobsession.ca). Being from the Hamilton area I grew up and into a die-hard Toronto Maple Leaf Fan, and look forward to a bright blue and white future...(I know that sounds crazy doesn't it?) Love all things sports and the next best thing to playing them, is talking them!