Not that long ago I posted here that the one Leaf who would be most sorely missed if he was absent from the lineup for any length of time was Dion Phaneuf. Fortunately for Leaf supporters, the captain is only out for a couple of games this week because of the suspension he received in light of his late game hit against the Bruins on Sunday night at the ACC.
But the short-term hole he created may have been an opportunity for other Leafs to step up, as the saying goes. (It may also give him a much-needed break from the wear and tear of playing major minutes throughout a long NHL season.) Rielly and Gardiner both played extended minutes, often together on the same pairing. Franson used his extra power-play time to score a key goal on a five-on-three in the second stanza. Generally speaking, the Leafs outshot and seemed to out-chance the Kings, and were tidy enough in their own zone for the most part (until the latter stages of the game) to hold off the western visitors, who just the night before had hammered the Habs in Montreal by a score of 6-0.
I’m not suggesting this will be the Leaf defense -i.e. minus Phaneuf next season- of the future. (I suppose that could be the case if Nonis and company determined at some point that 7 plus million dollars a season for the next seven years could indeed be used better on other prospective difference-makers in the Leaf lineup.) But assuming the captain will be here next season and beyond, this was a snapshot that provided some insight into what we have on the blueline should the Leafs go in another direction. (The Leafs, as we know, have a number of nice looking prospects in the system, but I’m not sure how many, if any, will be ready as early as next season. My guess is if Phaneuf left, the Leafs would be aggressive in free-agency looking for blueliners…)
While I’ve long been an advocate of Rielly getting the opportunity to play with Team Canada, if he is going to stay here, then he needs to play and develop as much as possible without, at the same time, over-extending him at this young age. Gardiner, as we have discussed here for some time, has all the potential in the world and is, the coach tells us, being asked (like Rielly) to “simplify” his game. Whether that’s a word either of these youngsters like or want to hear, it’s fair and does make a lot of sense. You never want to shut down a young player’s natural instincts or passion for the game, but there is a need for defensemen to ensure their defensive responsibilities to come first. Against the Kings, they both were at their skating best, and played hard and generally smart at both ends of the ice. (I liked seeing Gardiner use his body to rub a King forward out at center ice late in the third period as well. A decisive play. Reilly was on for the last LA goal, paired with Ranger, but was not a culprit on the play.)
Again, this was an opportunity to see the Leaf defense corps without the guy who usually plays more minutes—and against the best players—every night. That the Leafs held tight for the most part against the recent Cup champions was mildly encouraging.
The somewhat anticipated match-up between ex-Leaf goaltender Ben Scrivens and former King netminder Jonathan Bernier did not materialize. Scrivens has had quite a nice season for LA so far, but the Kings played the current hot hand (in the continued absence of Jonathan Quick) in rookie Martin Jones, who had earned two shutouts in a row coming into the Toronto game. My guess is Bernier didn’t much care who played for the Kings, as long as he got to play against his old team. His save early in the third period after a Lupul turnover was huge at the time. However Bernier and Fraser were caught facing a two-one-one after a Ranger pinch at the other hand, and that LA goal held up until they iced it with a late tally after a somewhat lackadaisical clearing attempt by Bernier—moments after Kessel almost tied the contest.
The Leafs had a great opportunity to tie things up 2-2 with about 5 minutes to go in the third period when Doughty was caught up ice but a pass did not quite get through to a flying (and wide open) Kessel.
While I liked a lot about the Leaf effort Wednesday night, at some point soon we will need to see evidence of one of those 'statement game' where the Leafs not only come away with two points, but win decisively against a good team while playing well for 60 minutes. Could St. Louis, on the road, be the ticket?