Certain things aren’t a shock anymore: the Leafs being outshot and out-chanced, for example. But more often than not this season, despite lopsided “numbers”, the good guys have managed to win their share of games and hang tough in the Eastern Conference standings. Every time despair sets in and Leaf supporters begin to throw in the towel, the team rebounds with a spurt that can’t be ignored—or simply attributed to overwhelming good fortune.
Tuesday night’s contest in Sunrise (or wherever it is the ill-located Florida franchise is situated) was an extension of the season so far: the Leafs were on the losing end of the shot clock, but with ten minutes to go in the third period, they had their skating legs and the momentum after David Clarkson scored to get the Leafs within a goal. A win was in sight—again.
The Leafs were all over the Panthers, who time and again struggled just to get the puck past their own blueline. Part of it was Toronto’s persistent forechecking pressure; some of it was a Florida squad that just isn’t very good at defensive zone play or isn't used to making plays under pressure when the game is on the line.
The Panthers are a team comprised of a few potential stud youngsters (Bjugstad, Barkov, Gudbranson) and a host of name players who may be past their prime, like Upshall, Campbell, Goc, Jovanosvski, et al but who are still capable NHLers. That said, despite not having to face many shots, I thought Tim Thomas, the old Leaf-killer, was instrumental in ensuring the Leafs did not complete their comeback.
The one goal the blue and white did get came when Nazem Kadri intercepted a poor clearing attempt by the Panthers, and he then make a nifty little pass to Clarkson who beat Thomas, who had come out to challenge the Toronto winger.
The Leafs came close after that, but the one goal Bernier (who was sharp all night) might want back was the third Florida marker. Matthias made a terrible clearing attempt inside his own blueline but somehow managed to get the puck back from Franson. He raced in alone and beat the Leaf netminder on the short side, which for all intent and purposes ended the Leafs’ night.
To me, it looked the Leafs were indeed going to come back in this one, especially after a potential third Florida goal was shown not to have crossed the goal line on review when it was 2-0 early in the third period. The Leafs had lots of jump in the third, but on this night, a win was not in the offing.
I don’t want to make a big deal out of one goal, but in a season of ups and downs for new Leaf winger David Clarkson, you can’t help but wonder if, despite the loss, that marker might just kickstart his season again.
Between injuries, a suspension and seemingly never quite fitting comfortably into the Leaf lineup just yet, the ex-Devil with the much-discussed contract could be a difference-maker for a club like the Leafs come playoff time.
The Leafs, most nights at least, have plenty of offense and can really fly when given the room. But that's not enough at playoff time. Some of us remember when players like Gary Roberts and Shayne Corson (hitting, blocking shots and chipping in on offense) were crucial springtime performers for the Buds more than a decade ago and I still believe Clarkson can provide the kind of impact Carlyle and Nonis were looking for when the Leaf signed him to a long-term deal last July. He has always (to me at least) shown signs of breaking out. He skates, tries to finish his checks and can be a physical presence. Yes, he needs to contribute some offense too—and I think he can.
We’ll see where he “fits” when Bolland returns. My guess is Carlyle will move Clarkson between the second and third lines in the weeks after the Olympic break, in an effort to see where Clarkson may best become the player the Leafs need him to be.
We all know this has not been a banner season for Clarkson so far, but I think the will and determination (and effort) has generally been there. Just like the Leafs, who looked all but lost a few weeks ago, a few goals and knowing that he is contributing to the team’s success could make Clarkson a very different player—in terms of confidence and production—in the final quarter of the season.