February 8, 2011
Leafs hang on for win on Long Island
By LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
UNIONDALE -- For awhile, it seemed as if the Maple Leafs were going to let the easiest two points of the season slip right through their gloves.
Against the fifth-string goalie on a beat-up, last-place team, in a road building devoid of energy, the Leafs went into the third period tied 2-2, giving the plucky Islanders hope that Mikko Koskinen might win his frantic NHL debut.
But Toronto prevailed 5-3 on a rush of goals from Tomas Kaberle, Nikolai Kulemin and Fredrik Sjostrom, sweeping back-to-back games to go 4-1 since the all-star break and move within eight points of the last playoff spot in the jammed basement steps of the Eastern Conference.
Koskinen, rushed in after the warm-up when the Isles' tragi-comic injury bug took out Kevin Poulin, overcame goals on the first two shots to hold his team in until the final 10 minutes. After early goals by first star Colby Armstrong and Jay Rosehill, the Leafs couldn't exploit the nervous goalie any further. The Leafs needed half the game to get more than 10 shots.
"We saw (Poulin) go down and that was our focus, to get shots on the young kid early," Armstrong said. "We tried to make some pretty plays and obviously it didn't work for us. But once in awhile, we got back to dirty, ugly road hockey."
Not only did Koskinen have to get ready in a hurry, he had no safety valve until the third period. The Isles had to call their Bridgeport, Conn., farm team and get the newly signed Joel Martin -- Koskinen's farm replacement -- to Nassau Coliseum as a back-up. Martin made it by the third period, but Koskinen was getting in a comfort zone by then.
Kaberle atoned for a series of gaffes by himself and others, delivering the winning goal on a sweet pass from Armstrong, a season-high the third straight game in which a Leaf defender has scored.
It wasn't just the Isles' goaltending ranks that had been decimated of Rick DiPietro and the sulking and suspended Evgeni Nabokov. The team listed six other players injured and announced before tha game that forward Trent Hunter was done for the year after knee surgery. The hospital ship included captain Doug Weight and key defenceman Mark Streit.
"We sat back and they scored late (to make it 5-3), but we'll take the points and the positives from this," captain Dion Phaneuf said.
The Leafs couldn't have asked the hockey gods for a better sign than the 6-foot-6 Koskinen leading the Isles out of the gate at game time. He has not even looked good in the American Hockey League. Armstrong flicked one past his glove right away and Rosehill neatly re-directed a high Luke Schenn wrist shot that any seasoned NHL goalie would've missed.
But Toronto, beginning four of five on the road, let down its guard. Kaberle took a hooking call when caught at the New York blue line and Matt Moulson made the Leafs pay after they'd had a chance to clear.
"Their penalty killing had more chances tonight than our power play," coach Ron Wilson said of a 0-for-3 night in front of 7,249 fans.
"A young team gets two goals quick and suddenly we think we're Stanley Cup champions. We were guilty of over-passing and not shooting enough. But we found a way in the third period."
Wilson's new-look lines from the 5-4 win over Atlanta the night before held for the most part, though Phil Kessel was blanked for a 12th straight game. He did set up Nikolai Kulemin for his 20th of the year, which became the latter's fifth game winner.
The on-ice officials were also giving Koskinen a break or two, looking the other way on his close tripping call in the second period, but quick to whistle Rosehill for goalie interference moments later.
James Reimer, Toronto's rookie goalie, improved to 6-4, making 31 saves overall after Moulson and Michael Grabner tied it.
Toronto made two lineup changes from he night before, Reimer in for Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Brett Lebda on defence for Carl Gunnarsson. The rarely used Lebda, a minus 19, last appeared in mid-January as a forward.
The Leafs now take on New Jersey at home on Thursday, hoping to tighten the race even more, though they've once more left it very late in the season.
"We've played pretty well," Wilson said. "We're getting good goaltending and contributions from people who weren't scoring before."