Those who dropped by for yesterday’s post will know that I saw a little extra value in the Leafs winning their second in a row against the Islanders on Tuesday night.
I said that not because the Islanders are some kind of important rival, either historically—though there was that great series in 1978—or even with regard to the current playoff chase. If anything, the Isles are a young team without much star-power (Tavares and some nice young players but not a lot else just yet…) and should be fodder for the Leafs.
No, my point was simply that, with a week off now before the next game, it was important for the Leafs to feel good about themselves heading into the break. Not that a win in their first game back wouldn’t accomplish much the same thing, but having a “streak” is something to feel really good about during your time away from the rink.
There were some obvious key elements to the contest, from the Leaf perspective. I thought Monster was steady again. We’re saying that in the same way we said it about Reimer a year ago—and that’s a good thing. Gustavsson’s “stats” are pretty good over this latest stretch where he has played a lot and more importantly, he is helping the Leafs garner as many points as possible—which will be crucial in April.
Of course Grabovski was outstanding, skating as he can and with eyes in the back of his head (particularly as he set up the crucial first Toronto goal in the dying seconds of the second period) while earning four points on the night. MacArthur finished twice, including that key first marker and the game-winner in overtime. (Interestingly, MacArthur only played 12 minutes…)
Jake Gardiner played huge minutes, controlled the puck smartly and scored his first goal on a shot that proved you don’t have to hammer it a hundred miles an hour—get it to the net and good things might happen.
Steckel won a ton of face-offs, at least that’s how it felt.
Yes, the Leafs caught a huge break on their third goal (when Grabbo’s shot bounced off a stick, up in the air and in behind Montoya) but the Isles caught one as well to tie the game late. And because the refs had essentially put their whistles away, what would normally have been a penalty in overtime was not called and the resultant rush became the winning goal for the Leafs.
But it was a road win, a comeback win, a win that was worth two points and as importantly, it will indeed send the boys off their on vacation with a smile on their faces.
One sobering thought, and it’s one we are all aware of: the hockey we witnessed the last two nights against the Islanders does not represent what is coming down the road—and is certainly not the kind of hockey we will see in the playoffs. The Islanders are a team in the midst of a major re-construction and the hockey was often sloppy. The Leafs have not been playing their finest hockey of late, either. Still, the Isles had won three in a row against some good teams prior to taking on the Leafs, so perhaps Toronto took some of the wind out of their sails.
Regardless, the points are in the bank- which is where they needed to be.
Phil Kessel was hardly the story of the game Tuesday night. In fact, he was pretty much a bit player, relatively speaking. But while Phil hasn’t been on the score sheet over the past few games as much as we have been accustomed to seeing this season, it was instructive to see him sparring with Islander players last night. He drew, not surprisingly, some extra attention and was standing his ground—which he will have to do when the checking becomes closer and closer as the season moves along.
One thing that I’ve really enjoyed seeing at times this season is when Kessel swings across the ice to make an offensive rush on his off wing. While I know he has not been blowing by guys as often lately down his customary right wing, he is especially dangerous for defensemen to deal with when he comes in on his off wing. He is able to control the puck at high speed and cut into the middle of the ice on his forehand. As a result, as often as not, he is able to unleash a dangerous (usually low) wrist shot. And because of the angle he releases the shot from and the way it comes off his stick, it’s usually very tough for the goaltender to handle, often causing rebounds.
I’m not suggesting Kessel should always play his off-wing (he’s obviously had plenty of success playing his natural side). But it’s good that Ron Wilson seems to allow the kind of creativity that makes Kessel so dangerous. It reminds me a bit of the way Bobby Hull played with those marvelous Swedes (Nillson and Hedberg) back in the 1970s with the old WHA Winnipeg Jets. There was a lot of “crossing over” and creative play—when that sort of thing was somewhat unusual in the “up and down the wing” NHL.
Come to think of it, in this over-coached, systems-oriented NHL—where the tiniest “mistakes” are on film forever and scrutinized by coaches—it’s unusual now.
In an era when the game can be awfully boring at times, I’m glad Kessel is not.