Apr 8, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Phil Kessel (81) scores the game winning goal on New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (30) during the third period at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated New York 4-3. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Phil Kessel Spurs Maple Leafs On To 4-3 Victory Over Rangers

It’s a strange feeling to see the Toronto Maple Leafs sitting so comfortably in playoff position this late in the season, let alone fifth place in the East heading into last night’s game with the New York Rangers. It’s a different story for the Rangers, who sat precariously on the edge of the playoffs, in seventh place but tied with their crosstown rival Islanders at 40 points and only two points ahead of the New Jersey Devils and Winnipeg Jets. Indeed, the game meant much more to the Broadway Blueshirts, and they nearly came from behind to steal at least a point from the Leafs, but those Buds held on as they have so many times this season to secure the two points. There were plenty of familiar storylines to digest in this one, so let’s take a look at a few that stood out.

The First Line Breaks Out

The unit of Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk were by far the best players on the ice not named James Reimer for the Maple Leafs in this one. Kessel paced the club offensively with two goals (including the game-winner) and an assist, JVR had his best game in a while contributing a goal and an assist, and Bozak picked up a key helper setting up Kessel’s GWG. I tweeted during the game that Bozak is an easy whipping boy for many Leafs fans including myself, but every once in a while he shows you that he belongs on an NHL first line, and his pass to Kessel was one of those moments. First, he and JVR showed great tenacity in keeping the puck in the offensive zone at the blue line. Eventually, Bozak found himself with the puck in the high slot and a couple of defenders between him and Kessel. Then, Bozak threaded a perfect pass between the two d-men, setting Kessel up in front of the net with only Rangers’ goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to beat. Kessel lost the puck momentarily during his deke attempt, but recovered quickly enough to slide the puck behind a sprawling Lundqvist. Kessel’s other goal came via his patented snap shot from the circle during a power play, as the puck found Lundqvist’s five-hole with JVR setting up an effective screen using that 6-foot-3 frame. Van Riemsdyk also scored in the first period after whacking in a rebound on his third attempt. JVR has played well the last few games after breaking that 10-game goalless drought, and he was sure on his game last night.

Fraser And Franson Break Down

It’s a little unfair to pile on Cody Franson and Mark Fraser because for the most part last night they played pretty well. But they were also both pretty badly victimized on separate goals by Rick Nash that should’ve been dealt with better. The first goal came in the second period when, in true power forward fashion, Nash stuck his right leg out and took the puck to the net hard from the left wing. Franson was defending Nash on the play and really couldn’t do anything to prevent him from getting to the goal, which is worrisome because that’s his main job as a defenseman. Reimer for some reason didn’t go down to the ice in his butterfly position, and the puck deflected off Nash’s skate and through Reimer’s legs. On Nash’s second goal, Fraser really had no chance as the big winger glided right by him at the bottom of the face-off circle, cut in front of the net and beat Reimer on the far side. Franson didn’t provide any support in front of the net as he was tangled up with Carl Hagelin, but really that goal showed how Fraser’s lack of foot speed hurts the team at times. A significant amount of blame goes on Randy Carlyle for playing Fraser and Franson over 20 minutes each and against the Rangers’ top scoring threat in Nash on many occasions, but he didn’t have much of a choice. John-Michael Liles isn’t strong defensively and recently-acquired Ryan O’Byrne is still adjusting to a new team. At the end of the day though, both Fraser and Franson need to be better in their own zone if this team is going to advance past the first round of the playoffs.

Reimer The Story Once Again

The Maple Leafs have made a nasty habit of allowing all hell to break loose in their own zone during the closing moments of tight games, but thankfully James Reimer has developed his own habit of turning into a brick wall in those situations. The Leafs were outshot 34-28 last night, and were -13 in Team Fenwick (a shot differential metric excluding blocked shots). The only players on the team in the plus side of Fenwick were van Riemsdyk, Colton Orr (a +1 in only six minutes of ice time), Bozak, Fraser and Kessel. Granted, these numbers aren’t adjusted for game state and score effects, but nonetheless, good teams aren’t outshot and in the negative side of Fenwick on a regular basis. The Leafs have been all season. So how in the world do the Leafs find themselves firmly in playoff position with nine games to go? Well, most of it can be chalked up to luck, timely scoring and goaltending. The only logical choice for team MVP this season is James Reimer.

Other Random Scattered Thoughts: O’Byrne scored his second goal of the season and fifth of his career in his first game as a Leaf last night. ROB proved he’s more than just a stay-at-home d-man by jumping into a Nazem Kadri-led odd-man rush and burying the one-timer. Hats off to Dave Nonis for adding such stellar offensive production at the trade deadline!…The downside of O’Byrne’s inclusion in the lineup is it meant Jake Gardiner was sent to the press box again. I would love to see Fraser taken out of the lineup and Gardiner given a shot to play more than just a few games at a time in a row to get in a groove. His offensive instincts are extremely valuable to this team…Another young player scratched in this game was winger Matt Frattin, who saw the press box for the second game in a row. It’s too bad, because Frattin has really impressed with his willingness to play with an edge and a nose for the net this season. You already know how I feel about guys like Orr and Frazer McLaren being dressed over competent players like Frattin, so no need to beat a dead horse here…Speaking of forwards firmly entrenched in Carlyle’s doghouse, Mikhail Grabovski saw just over 10 minutes of ice time and didn’t see the ice for the last 12 minutes of the game. Not sure what Carlyle expects from him offensively, seeing how he put him on a line with Jay McClement and Leo Komarov, but there’s no denying Grabovski is struggling. I’d give him a shot on a line with Clarke MacArthur and Frattin and see if he can get things going again…And while we’re on the topic of underutilized centreman, Joe Colborne was on the ice for under five minutes last night. He seems really tentative out there and needs to develop some confidence. Play the kid!…The Leafs complete the home-and-home with the Rangers on Wednesday night as they travel to the Big Apple. Catch the game on TSN or RDS2 if you understand French. You can also listen to the game on Sportsnet 590 The Fan if you just can’t get enough of Joe Bowen. The festivities begin shortly after 7 PM local time.

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