Three wins in a row for the Leafs was great: four might have been pushing it. Toronto’s season-long winning streak came to an end tonight on Long Island, in a game that saw the young Buds betrayed by some mistakes on the part of some of the veteran leaders on the squad. After Nikolai Kulemin scored his 4th goal in 5 games a minute into the game, Jiggy gave up a squeaker reminiscent of The Human Sieve, and the Isles were right back in it. New York’s second goal came a man down, with Richard Park scooping up a Tomas Kaberle turnover and beating Giguere with a wrister from outside the circles.
Despite tonight’s loss, the Leafs had what was probably the best week of their season this past week. Overtime wins over Boston and Tampa Bay, as well as a 6 goal performance against fellow basement tenant Edmonton, saw some great things from some of the youngsters. The current top line of Kulemin-Bozak-Kessel seems to be working very well. Kessel and Bozak have shown instant chemistry since being paired together, and Kulemin’s combination of speed, size and hustle has been a great complement to the two smallish scorers. The line has combined for 9 goals and 18 points in the last 5 games, just over half of the team’s total production over the same span.
Kessel has played remarkably well since the break. I had forgotten just how fast he was, and apparently so had Dennis Wideman of the Boston Bruins, who made the mistake of forgetting about him twice in Tuesday’s game. Barring another terrible drought, Kessel should finish with over 30 goals for the 2nd consecutive season. The fact that he’s actually playing with players who can create time and space for him has been huge, considering how little space he needs with his insanely quick release and pinpoint accurate shot. Just ask poor Devan Dubnyk:
It’s not just the top line that’s looked better. Luca Caputi looks right at home in the Blue and White, with a goal and 4 points through his first 6 games as a Leaf. Despite the fact he’s only 185 lbs, he shows no fear of playing in the dirty areas, and constantly seems to be right in the middle of things, especially around the net. If it wasn’t for the pesky Belarussian being a hair quicker to the puck, he would have had his 2nd goal as a Leaf against Edmonton on Saturday.
Viktor Stalberg finally seems to be coming around as well. After posting only 2 goals and 1 assist in the first part of the season, he has 3 goals and 5 points in the last two weeks, and has also been far more involved at both ends of the ice.
The best part of this whole situation is the fact that all five of these players that have been instrumental in Toronto’s recent success is the fact that they are all incredibly young. Stalberg is the oldest at 24, while Kulemin and Bozak are 23, Kessel is 22 and Caputi is 21.
It may be all too little, too late for the Leafs this year, but as one of those “glass is always full” Leaf fans, I hold a great deal of optimism for the future. For those that still haven’t gotten over the fact that Burke won’t be making a trip to the podium in the first round of this year’s draft, the Leafs could be poised to make a move outta the basement (assuming they don’t immediately turn face and start playing like they did all year). The rest of the schedule shapes up as follows: 5 games against teams currently out of the playoffs (2 apiece with the Rangers and Thrashers, 1 with Florida), 4 games against teams barely in the playoffs (Philadelphia, Boston and 2 games with the hated Canadiens), 3 games against playoff locks (Buffalo, Pittsburgh, New Jersey) and Tuesday’s matchup with Ottawa.
With 13 games left, Toronto currently has 58 points. Playoffs? No. But if they can keep winning and teams like Atlanta, Florida and the Islanders don’t get hot all of a sudden, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to move up at least a spot or two.