Coming off one of their worst efforts of the season the Toronto Maple Leafs went into Long Island on Thursday looking to avoid back-to-back losses for the third time this season. In the words of Joe Bowen “it wasn’t pretty, but it was gritty.” The Maple Leafs gave up a 4-2 lead in the third period and needed an overtime goal from Dion Phaneuf to secure the two points with a 5-4 victory. Here are a few things that caught my eye:
The biggest story of the night was clearly the return of James Reimer after missing over two weeks with a knee injury. In his first game since spraining his MCL against Philadelphia on February 11th, Reimer was very shaky from the start, never seeming to get in a groove and he clearly wasn’t feeling 100% comfortable in the net. He let in the first shot he saw and a couple minutes later he was beat clean by another Josh Bailey shot, but was bailed out by the post. He let in two weak third period goals to allow the Islanders to tie the game and was shaky the entire final frame and in overtime. Hopefully this was just a case of being rusty after missing some time and he finds a way to get back to where he was before the injury.
The Maple Leafs have not lost in back-to-back games in almost a month. They avoided that again on Thursday and what is even more impressive is that they have not lost more than two games in a row on the season. With only 48 games on the year, avoiding losing streaks becomes even more important because there is less of an opportunity to go on a run and make up those points.
The one thing this team continues to do is show its resiliency. Even after giving up a two goal lead in the third period they found a way to stick with it and get the win in overtime. The Maple Leafs have played the most road games in the league and have a very impressive 9-4 record in those contests.
Nazem Kadri is known to some of his teammates as “The Dream” and given his play this year it’s not hard to understand why. He has elite level skills and silky smooth hands. Things weren’t always so peachy though for the former London Knight. Kadri has gone through a bumpy ride in the Leafs organization to get where he is today; to the point where I wrote an article this summer about this year being a make or break season for the skilled forward. However, Kadri has arguably been the most impressive Maple Leaf player to start the season with eight goals and 21 points in 22 games to lead the team. He has dominated the minutes he has been given and is making it clear to management that he is part of the future of this club.
Kadri scored the first hat trick of his career on Tuesday, including two highlight reel goals. He had great jump all night and was the best player on the ice for either team.
I have always been a big supporter of Phil Kessel. Even when he was struggling to score early in the season I thought he was playing well and I wasn’t overly concerned with his lack of production. However, he has been nothing short of awful the last three games and Thursday might have been the worst of them all. He has looked slow and has made very poor decisions with the puck. Against the Islanders he had a bad giveaway at the offensive blue line which led to a breakaway and eventually a penalty. Michael Grabner bailed him out on that occasion by missing the net on that attempt, but it does not excuse Kessel’s effort. Although the Maple Leafs appear to have accumulated some depth at the forward position, which has allowed them to get by without his production, they need Kessel to not only score goals, but to be dangerous shift after shift, night after night.
Please Call Up Jake Gardiner
Even on a night when the team won, the defense group was underwhelming again. What is most concerning is that Jake Gardiner, who might be the second best defenseman in the organization behind Dion Phaneuf, is still wallowing away with the Toronto Marlies. Although as a team the Maple Leafs goals against is improved this year, it is mostly a result of very good goaltending.
I appreciate the efforts of Mike Kostka and Korbinian Holzer, but they are over matched in their current roles. Holzer was expected to be a bottom pairing guy, but has been thrust into a top pairing position and is struggling to keep his head above water. He is leaning on Phaneuf too much at this point. Kostka is a career minor-league player and his lack of foot speed is starting to catch up with him. This team would be much better served with Gardiner and John-Michael Liles in the lineup in place of Holzer and Kostka.
One thing that was evident in this game, and the past few games for that matter, is the lack of engagement by the defense in the rush. The group of six that have been playing just do not have enough of that skill set available to them. Both Gardiner and Liles are great skaters and move the puck really well and would certainly change that.
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