I don’t place a lot of emphasis on games like the one on the Island Thursday night—you know, after everyone has had a long layoff and teams need a bit of time to get back to normal. I tend to feel the same way after the All Star break, for example. Guys' heads are not always fully back where they need to be. But every point matters and the Leafs were able to—yet again—find a way to score enough late to earn a crucial point on the road.
Credit to the Islanders, who will have to adjust to playing without their best player—John Tavares. They won in what can only be called a sloppy contest. For their part, the Leafs worked past the dubious early distinction of giving up two goals on their own power-play within about a minute or so of each other, to continue their steady climb up the Eastern Conference standings.
Some small but significant things caught my eye—Kessel picked up where he left off before the Olympic break, working to Bozak and van Riemsdyk to open the scoring. Then there was Bozak using his speed to help create a turnover when the game was tied at 2 and ultimately dishing off nicely to Phaneuf to give the Leafs the lead. (The Kessel/JVR/Bozak line was a plus 2 on the night, I believe.) Kadri then made a sweet little pass to Lupul to set up a great top-shelf backhand goal to restore a Leaf lead. However, the scrappy Islanders took advantage of the Leafs running around a bit in their own zone to even things up again with just over two minutes left in the contest.
But the thing that may caught my eye most happened before the game even started. Carlyle went with 7 defensemen again, a mini-trend that started just before the Olympic break. Just as notably, his “extra” forwards (beyond the top three lines) were Troy Bodie and Trevor Smith.
Whether it’s Bodie and Smith, or Carter Ashton and Peter Holland, my sense from the readership here at VLM is that the majority of Leaf supporters want to see the coach run with guys who can skate and crash (and make plays on occasion), and who can be more than one-dimensional in terms of their contributions.
This is not to say there will never be a need on a given night for Colton Orr or Fraser McLaren. But by and large, my sense, too, is that the Leafs will achieve more with well-rounded contributors on their fourth line. I don’t see Carlyle going regularly with 7 defensemen, but at the moment, it makes sense to keep everyone’s blueline minutes down and to give someone like Ranger needed ice time, because we may well need him come playoff time. (That he scored another goal should be a nice boost to his confidence.)
Again, the game was hardly a barometer of anything. At times the Leafs looked like a squad that had not played a game in weeks (months?). Bernier made some good stops, but was not at his razor-sharp best, nor could we have expected him to be. The last goal in overtime was a bit of a fluke. Blame may fall on van Riemsdyk for a give away, but I would liked to have seen Gardiner been harder on the puck in the corner to prevent it from getting to the front of the Leaf net to begin with. (Maybe I’m being too hard on the young Leaf decfenseman.)
All in all, it was a game the Leafs had to play to get back into game action and the overall swing of things. Nothing more, nothing less.
That said, the coaches will certainly have plenty of “mistake” tapes for film sessions before the game on Saturday night, which may not be a bad thing. The Leafs were no doubt feeling pretty ‘heady’ after their run up the standings in late January and early February. A loss against an Islander team reeling from losing Tavares may be a gentle nudge, if one was needed—a reminder that no NHL team can be taken lightly.
As many of us have said, there is still plenty to work on for this team. They started the stretch run against the Islanders much the same way they have played most of the season- giving up too many shots. But they still got a point—which is almost a bonus after a game like that one.