Before the opening face-off tonight, the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders were two teams heading in opposite directions. Toronto had lost four of their last five games and were beginning to lose ground in the Eastern Conference playoff race, while the Islanders were riding high with three straight W’s and winners of four of their last five. However something must have finally gotten through to the boys in blue and white as they came out of the gate possessed tonight. The Leafs took a quick lead 1:37 into the game as Matthew Lombardi scored his first of two goals on the night. Lombardi took a nice feed from rookie Jake Gardiner and was lucky as Islanders defenseman Mark Streit shovelled Lombardi’s rebound past Evgeny Nabakov. Toronto did not relent after that goal, in fact they came on even stronger outshooting the Isles 16-5 in the opening frame. Nabakov was the difference early especially during a Leafs power play stopping six shots. While the quantity of shots was impressive, the most important and noteworthy element of the Leafs’ game was the play of the back end. Toronto was dominant in their own zone, as all three defense pairings easily defended in front of goalie Jonas Gustavsson. Islanders star John Tavares entered the night on a 12 game point streak (8 goals and 13 assists) and was the hottest player in the NHL not named Evgeny Malkin. While Tavares split the defense pairing of Luke Schenn and Dion Phaneuf for a great chance in the first, he shot wide and the Leafs learned their lesson as they physically punished him every chance they had for the rest of the game.
In the second period the Leafs continued to territorially be the superior team, yet were still clinging to that one goal lead. The lack of offense that has plagued the Leafs the last little while was evident tonight as well. Toronto squandered what little chances they did have, but were pressed to create anything substantial during the middle frame. Carl Gunnarsson and Mike Komisarek were specifically strong, and they managed to keep the Islanders forwards to the perimeter most of the night. While the offense has struggled of late, the Leafs defensive zone play has really been solidified. Rookie Jake Gardiner was strong as was his partner Cody Franson. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Leafs defensive six play as solid a game as they did tonight. The Islanders were no pushovers either (unlike the Minnesota Wild last week) as this game was critical to their slim playoff hopes. Gardiner (23:32), Gunnarsson (25:39) and Dion Phaneuf (26:29) all logged heavy minutes for the buds.
Although the Leafs were the dominant team they entered the third period with a slim lead thanks to that early Lombardi marker. The Isles came out for the final frame with a purpose, and pressed for the opening minutes as they attempted to make the Leafs pay for not putting them away. Just over eight minutes into the third period though the Leafs top scoring duo of Phil Kessel (8th overall in the NHL) and Joffrey Lupul (5th) picked up a loose puck in their own zone following a Michael Grabner chance and stormed up ice. Lupul threw the puck on the net, and Kessel banged home the rebound past a helpless Nabakov for his team leading 26th of the season. It was a huge goal for the Leafs as they’ve lost a couple of games lately that they’ve let slip away from them. The Islanders continued to try and get back into the game, and the Moulson – Tavares – Parenteau line had a long siege in front of Gustavsson, but couldn’t get one past the Leafs new #1 keeper. During this prolonged siege the Leafs managed to slip the puck out of the zone, the quick legs of Mikhail Grabovski raced forward and kept the puck alive in the Isles zone and a fresh Lombardi outraced an exhausted Islanders top line and converted a Joey Crabb perfectly to put the final nail in the New York coffin.
The two points tonight were a welcome and deserved result, but the bulk of the credit should go to the six blueliners. Lombardi scored two goal on the night to give him four in his last four games, and Grabovski played a fantastic two way game tonight logging a forward high of 19:32. Gustavsson continued his stellar play as he is now 11-5-0 in his last sixteen games with 3 shutouts. Gustavsson was solid and composed, but there weren’t any spectacular saves necessary for this shutout. With these two teams facing off tomorrow night on Long Island hopefully Toronto can put the Islanders permanently in the rear view mirror and focus on a post all-star playoff push. If their defensive play, secondary scoring and steady goaltending use this game as a springboard going forward their post season chances will become significantly greater.
Men of the Match
Leafs: Carl Gunnarsson – As noted above, Gunnarsson played heavy minutes for the Leafs tonight. He used his body well, boxing the bigger Islanders wingers away from the front of the net. Gunnarsson was also crucial in eliminating Tavares. His stick positioning and mobility were a big reason that the Toronto products point streak came to an end.
Islanders: John Tavares – Although he was help pointless and in check for most of the night, his skill and abilities were a joy to watch. Tavares has become a player that is worth the price of admission. Seeing him tonight at the top of his game, finally displayed why he was seen to be a future star at 15 years old in Toronto, why he was a first overall pick in the league, and why many people thought he could challenge Sidney Crosby for the mantra of the best hockey player in the world. The 22 year old isn’t far off the pace of the top players in the league.
Next Game: The Leafs and Islanders will renew hostilities in the blue and white’s final game before the all-star break.