There is a new look to the Maple Leafs’ lineup and a new picture in the NHL standings.
A single point in Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils, courtesy Ilya Kovalchuk’s goal with 23.2 seconds of overtime, still means Toronto has nine of a possible 12 points since the all-star break and moves it within seven of the eighth-place Carolina Hurricanes, with three teams in between. The Devils are behind Toronto, but are now on an 11-1-2 run.
Joffrey Lupul completed re-jigged forward lines and Keith Aulie was added on defence, but it was Reimer who kept the Leafs in it until Kovalchuk backed the Leafs defence up on a bold rush and snapped the winner to the far side. Reimer made 37 saves.
An 0-for-4 Leafs power play dropped the Leafs to 5-for-50 since their big 5-for-7 night in Atlanta on Jan. 7, but some great penalty killing by Tyler Bozak and Colby Armstrong evened things out.
Reimer was starting to get close to a second straight shutout at home, last done by Jean-Seabstien Giguere late last season, but Dainius Zubrus had other plans. He fought off Tomas Kaberle in a drive to the net to tip in a perfect Mark Fayne pass in the third.
Phil Kessel, meanwhile, was in danger of becoming yesterday’s news until a nice second effort resulted in the game’s first goal. Knocked over trying to jam a Mikhail Grabovski feed past Johan Hedberg, he still got a puck back in front to Nikolai Kulemin for the latter’s 21st of the year.
When the shock of the trade wore off, Lupul grabbed a newspaper and checked the standings.
“That was the first thing I looked at — how far out we were,” he said. “Eight points is not an ideal situation, but it’s by no means over. You get on a little run, you play some of those teams a few times and you are right back in it. That’s exciting to be still in the race, because I know for the past couple of months, it wasn’t looking so good.”
Lupul looked a bit tentative — it has been about eight years since he and Clarke MacArthur were linemates in Medicine Hat — and took a second period penalty. But coach Ron Wilson liked him with his junior billet MacArthur, the club’s leading scorer, taking the latter off the top line a couple of games ago to get him used to playing with centre Bozak. The latter had a strong game on faceoffs, penalty killing and almost put one in the empty net after deking Hedberg before getting slashed by Fraser.
“They told me this deal was a possibility five or six days ago, so you just start planning ahead,” Wilson said. “(You think ahead) if this happens, who would play with who, or if this happens, what would our defence combinations be? We saw this deal coming down and were able to make some adjustments to our lines.
“For the beginning, you might as well play a guy who is familiar with someone from the past. Hopefully we can blend him in and get him feeling at home right away.”
Lupul was in the starting lineup and repeated how much he appreciates the chance former Anaheim boss Brian Burke has given him to be a full-time player again.
“We’ve always had a good relationship, or as good as you could have with a guy who traded you once,” Lupul joked of bring in the Chris Pronger deal with Edmonton. “He’s had some nice things to say and I know I’m looking forward to playing for him again and getting my career back on track. The last two years have not gone to plan.”
Now begins a real test of the Leafs’ modest success, four straight games against Northeast Division opponents. While they tend to saw off the season’s series with Montreal and Ottawa, they can’t win in Buffalo to save their lives and since the Kessel deal, games in Boston have mostly been a hellish experience. At least they will have a motivated Giguere to start the trek on Saturday at the Bell Centre.