In a game that had many similarities to past hostile times, the Toronto Maple Leafs (and thousands of blue and white supporters) invaded the Scotiabank Place in Ottawa and convincingly defeated the Senators 5-0. Heading into the contest the Leafs were sitting three points behind the surprising Sens for the 7th spot in the Eastern Conference playoff standings, yet holding the upper hand having played three less games than the boys from the nation’s capital. The game began with a tentative start from both teams. Although the speed game that both the Leafs and Senators prefer to engage in was in full flight, the teams seemed to be feeling each other out the first half of the opening frame. Ottawa was provided the opportunity to get the upper hand in the match as the Leafs took back to back penalties first to Cody Franson followed by Joffrey Lupul. Ottawa pressured, but the Leafs prevailed running their current streak to a perfect 22 for 22 on the penalty kill since the calender turned from 2011 to 2012. Following that Leafs star Phil Kessel decided to take the game over. With a largely pro-Leaf audience cheering him on, Kessel banged in his own rebound to give the Leafs a 1-0 lead. #81 in blue and white then displayed his underrated passing skills as he set up Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf with a beautiful cross seam pass on a Leafs power play. Phaneuf buried the chance and to the delight of the crowd the Leafs took a 2-0 lead to the intermission. The Senators were lucky that the lead wasn’t greater as red-hot Mikhail Grabovski beat Anderson, but was denied by the post minutes after Phaneuf’s marker.
What was impressive to me was the fact that in a big game with obvious importance, the Leafs big guns really stepped up and got the ball rolling. I am a big believer that your stars must be the players that elevate their games early in these moments, and the Leafs definitely received that tonight from Kessel and Phaneuf. Conversely the Senators (as has often happened in the past) were found lacking intensity from star players Daniel Alfredsson, Sergei Gonchar and Jason Spezza. Alfredsson was contained to the outside for most of the night. Gonchar was guilty of turning the puck over multiple times. Specifically in the first Gonchar gave the puck up to Leafs winger Nikolai Kulemin forcing him to take a minor penalty (in which Phaneuf capitalized on). Spezza was otherwise absent except for when Phaneuf deposited him on his back end with a body check.
The Senators did outshoot the Leafs 36-24 the rest of the way, but Leafs goalie James Reimer was a calming and steadying presence between the pipes for the buds as he recorded his second straight shutout. Ottawa did throw plenty of pucks towards Reimer, but the outcome of the game was never in doubt. Nevertheless the Leafs goalie has once again emerged as the buds’ go to guy between the pipes. The Leafs added to their lead in the middle period as Kessel once again made a gorgeous pass to streaking centre Tyler Bozak for a breakaway. Bozak flipped the puck over a sprawling Anderson for his second goal in three games, and Kessel’s third point of the night. There were many players on the night that did many little things that are necessary for teams to win clutch games that may have gone unnoticed. Kulemin had a great night at both ends of the rink once again, and is playing his best hockey of the season at the right time. Rookie defenseman Jake Gardiner was a star out there tonight to me. With all the attention and praise being heaped on Senators all-star Karlsson, the young Leaf blueliner played 22:39 on the night registering an assist and making countless great plays in his own zone. Gardiner seems to be getting better every night, and in my mind has just as bright a future as any young blueliner in the league not named Drew Doughty.
The Leafs displayed some killer instinct in the third period as they held the highest scoring third period team at bay while piling on with goals from defenseman Luke Schenn and Cody Franson. Both defenseman scored off great feeds from centres, Schenn snapping home a great pass from Bozak and Franson one timed home a great no-look pass from Grabovski. The assists extended Grabo’s point streak to five straight games, he has 10 points over that stretch. The third period ended up being a celebration of sorts as the crowd reveled in the Leafs’ triumph while the hometown fans either departed early or silently withstood the gloating from the blue and white fanbase.
With the victory the Leafs moved one point behind the Senators while still holding those three games in hand. The Senators are fading fast having lost six straight contests, and are in serious danger of falling out of the playoff picture considering they have played the most games so far in the league. The Leafs have now won four of their last five games and have points in five straight. With four games in the next six nights it’ll be interesting to see how the goalie situation plays out. Will the Leafs ride a fresh and rested Reimer, or does Jonas Gustavsson spell him in one of the upcoming games. Either way the Leafs can enjoy this one as they rose to the challenge in Ottawa. Tonight’s performance can be one that elevates one team down the final stretch while tossing an anchor to their sinking rivals.
Men of the Match
Leafs: Phil Kessel - The sniper reclaimed the team scoring lead from linemate Joffrey Lupul with a great performance. Many people doubt Kessel’s character, but tonight’s performance was a character one for #81. He was a threat all night and made his teammates around him better. Following the game Senators coach Paul (soup strainer) MacLean said that Kessel was the difference in the game as his team didn’t have an answer for him.
Senators: Erik Karlsson – The NHL’s leader in defenseman scoring was held in check tonight by the Leafs, but he was always noticeable on the ice. Karlsson is a great skater and he made a couple of nice plays in his own zone tonight skating the puck out of trouble.
Healyism of the Night
“Pretty good by Jake Gardiner a throw in on the Lupul – Beauchemin deal last year”
Next Game: The Leafs head home to face the Edmonton Oilers Monday night at the Air Canada Centre.