February 7, 2011
Maple Leafs thrash Atlanta
By LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
With the goal of getting Phil Kessel to trip a red light, Ron Wilson crossed blue and white wires with all his forward lines Monday night.
It jolted just about everyone except the cursed Kessel, but No. 81 was wearing the same smile as the rest of the Maple Leafs after a crucial 5-4 comeback against the Atlanta Thrashers at the Air Canada Centre.
In the name of getting Kessel his mojo back - and restoring some harmony after he went into a Sunday snit about being split from favourite centre Tyler Bozak -- coach Wilson did what he once swore he wouldn't, split up the top line of Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur. Kessel failed to score for an 11th straight game or even get a point with his new Russian-speaking mates, but he was was able to shave two goals off of his team-worst minus 22.
"I had some chances and I was finally plus in a game," Kessel noted as the Leafs hurried to their flight to Long Island for Tuesday's game.
"We'll see how it goes (with the line). I didn't say anything bad (Sunday) like everyone thought I did."
Toronto used its game in hand on eighth-place Carolina to draw within a more realistic nine points of a playoff spot, with 29 to play and four team to pass. Despite the terrible game in Buffalo on Saturday that prompted all the angst about Kessel and a new round of fan caterwaling, the Leafs are 3-1 after the all-star break, with two teams below them in the standings next on the schedule.
Distracted by a day of Kesselmania in the media, six first-period minors and a 2-0 Thrashers lead, the Leafs changed lines and changed their luck. MacArthur was not disturbed by change to left wing with Kris Versteeg and Darryl Boyce, tipping in a Tomas Kaberle pass for his career-tying 17th, making it 3-3 late in the second. MacArthur was also with Bozak at the end. Boyce was supposed to play with Kessel and Joey Crabb, but Wilson surprised the whole bench with a four-line shuffle.
"We had them ready before the game (but) the first period was so screwed up with all the penalties that I couldn't go that way," Wilson said. "It just got too discombobulated.
"I've watched every goal Phil scored with Boston (two years ago) and he usually did it with two lefty (shots), Marc Savard and Milan Lucic. There's two people on our team similar (Kulemin and Grabovski) to give Phil a chance. When he's plus, we usually win, that's huge. He had good scoring chances and that line looked danegrous every time they were out. And I thought Bozak would be perfect for Clarke, a righty passing to a lefty, and everything worked out."
The winner was by Tim Brent, who wound up on a new-look third unit between Crabb and Colby Armstrong.
"It wasn't talked about between periods and we didn't see it coming," Brent said of the new assignments. "But you just roll with it.
"Ron hasn't done that for awhile, but it's a nice chance to play with different guy. For the most part, it was a good spark for a lot of guys."
Grabovksi and Kulemin had goals without Kessel's help, Kulemin's off a bizarre Dustin Byfuglien giveaway in the slot.
Kessel needed a good north-south game to get his act together, but the Leafs spent the whole first period killing penalties - and giving up two power-play markers.
The first call was on Kessel himself. Whether trying to adhere to Wilson's edict to play better defence or not, he was called for an iffy back-checking hook and had to make the long skate to the bench after Evander Kane converted the goal. Kessel played less than four minutes in the first. There were two chances for Kessel in the first, a nice snap that Ondrej Pavelec handled and a partial breakaway where big Byfuglien poke-checked him.
General manager Brian Burke told the Toronto Sun on Monday morning that neither Kessel nor his agent had come to him in recent days expressing a desire to move, a story that somehow grew out of Kessel's comments on Sunday about his slump. But Burke later met separately with Wilson and Kessel.
"I just told them to sort it out with each other, get it cleared up," Burke told TSN. "Because neither one of them is going anywhere. I am not trading the player. I am not firing the coach."
There was one Leaf scorer who came in from the cold. Phaneuf finally bagged one in the building where it was hoped he would dominate, 53 weeks after he was acquired from the Calgary Flames. That gave him a total of two this year and four as a Leaf in 63 games.
"It's been a long time since I scored in this building," Phaneuf said of his early career. "It felt great, but the important thing is that we won."