A vibrant Maple Leafs squad boarded a charter after an exciting victory over the Boston Bruins and headed for Buffalo, yet another city where good times have been in short order and desperately needing to change. Playing arguably their best road game of the year and amidst all the trade buzz, the Leafs managed to come away with the win in Beantown, lead by incredible performances from Phil Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski, and James Reimer. Kessel, who managed to snap his dreadful 14 game scoring slump, could not have scripted a more timely breakout and against no better opponent than his former team. Grabovski finished a two goal outing with the game winner on a beautiful rush, splitting the Bruin’s defense to beat Tim Thomas high to the short side. Following the game, many would question whether Grabovski should have even been on the ice, after taking a hard ride from Zdeno Chara into the boards and suffering what looked to be concussion like symptoms. Maple Leaf’s President and General Manager Brian Burke debated that criticism today while on Sportsnet Radio Fan590′s Hockey Central at Noon.
“When you see a player getting up like a young colt and he’s rubber like, your first assumption is that he must have gotten his bell rung. I think our fans need to understand our concussion protocol when a player comes back to the bench. Our trainer is Andy Playter and he is first rate. He went right to Grabo and said how are you. He had total recall of the situation and had no blackout, no dizziness, and no nausea. He was ready to go.”
The Leafs would require a gritty effort mirroring that of the night before to see their fortunes at the HSBC Arena reverse. Their last episode in the win column there dates back to December 2008 and since, the Leafs have dropped 7 straight in Buffalo and have been out-scored 30-12 in that span by their Northeast Division rivals.
Both teams displayed the urgency of the late season in the first period, with chances traded both ways in a fast paced and energetic start. The Leafs were unable to convert on a few opportunities, and nearly put themselves behind the eight-ball, taking 3 penalties throughout the opening frame. A solid penalty kill allowed them to build some momentum into the second with the score remaining at zero.
The momentum for the Leafs would come with a strange twist, as James Reimer was in goal to open the second period. With what was disclosed as a lower body injury, J.S. Giguere’s health concerns found him on the bench and unfit to play. The change in plans however didn’t stop the Leafs from grabbing the all important first goal of the game. Known to score in bunches out of a slump, Phil Kessel would beat Ryan Miller from the slot for the 1-0 lead. The goal lifted the Leafs as they continued a strong fore-check and controlled the physical play, leaving the Sabres on their heels. The pressure saw the emotions rise in the game and tensions grew to end the second period with the Leafs frustrating the Sabres and holding the 1 goal lead into the third.
The action and quick pace from the first two periods was evident and highly visible in the Leafs game through the third. Failing to score on an extended 5-on-3 powerplay and going 0 for their last 38 chances against the Sabres, they seemed to let momentum slip. With Carl Gunnarson in the box for hooking, the Buffalo powerplay went to work, but wasn’t much of an advantage. Joey Crabb made a nifty play shorthanded to break in on Miller and the highlight reel goal would be his first as a Maple Leaf. The play deflated the Sabre powerplay, however they managed to find the scoreboard shortly after, on a soft goal by Paul Gaustad. A sharp angle shot from the boards slipped through Reimer, who would surely love to have that one back. The goal wouldn’t faze the rookie netminder, who showed tremendous composure coming off the bench cold for the injured Giguere. With Reimer shutting the door, the Leafs continued to work the transition game in their favor and put together another 60 minute effort, for the 2-1 lead and slipping into 11th place in the Eastern Conference Standings.
The Leafs managed to mold their performance from Boston and brought it to Buffalo with some determination. Although surrounded by the turmoil from the week’s events, the team rebounded from the shutout in Montreal and put together a recipe for two of their best road games all season. Phil Kessel continued to make up for lost time and skated with a jump, while engaging himself in the play with confidence. His line-mate and new Leaf, Joffrey Lupul is developing some chemistry and his first as a Leaf looks to be coming with 3 great chances in the third. Another effort to build on and seeing the reward with the jump in standings will leave this Leaf team with a taste of success. The drive for that taste will be put to test in the coming week, as this critical stretch of the season continues. And if their recent play while under the circumstances is any indication, the character of this team will allow them the one thing they could ask for….a chance.
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!