Leafs hit break on a high
TERRY KOSHAN, QMI Agency
|Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer deflects a shot behind Islanders forward Matt Moulson and defenceman Carl Gunnarsson at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., Dec. 23, 2011. (RAY STUBBLEBINE/Reuters)
UNIONDALE, N.Y. - No lumps of coal in the Maple Leafs’ stockings this year.
The Leafs pulled up their socks in their last two games before the Christmas break, beating the New York Islanders 5-3 at Nassau Coliseum on Friday night, 24 hours after disposing of the Buffalo Sabres back home.
“It’s funny how miserable Christmas is when you lose,” coach Ron Wilson said. “It’s miserable whenever you lose, but you don’t want to be an Ebenezer Scrooge at Christmas time for a couple of days.
“This is nice to get a little bit of a cushion and for our team to relax and get over some of the bumps and bruises that we have.”
The win, before a crowd of 12,432, ensured the Leafs will enjoy Christmas in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with 40 points. The Leafs have 18 wins; a year ago at Christmas, en route to another playoff-less spring, the Leafs had 12 victories.
“We feel like we are in a good position,” defenceman Luke Schenn said. “If you had told us at the start of the season where we would be at Christmas, we would take it.”
The Islanders appeared to be in holiday mode early, but they decided to try to get on Santa’s nice list and mounted a small comeback after the Leafs built a 3-0 lead in the first period on goals by Clarke MacArthur, Nazem Kadri and Carl Gunnarsson.
Clad in their horrible third sweaters, the Islanders got goals from Kyle Okposo late in the first and from Frans Nielsen early in the second (with Keith Aulie serving a dumb interference penalty on the second goal) to get back in the game, but Joey Crabb’s short-handed score off a 2-on-1 with Tyler Bozak at 8:59 of the second wound up being the winner.
John Tavares scored just his third goal in 22 games midway through the third, but the Leafs withstood a final barrage and Joffrey Lupul scored into an empty net with nine seconds remaining.
James Reimer made 30 saves. Evgeni Nabokov stopped 22 Leafs shots.
Jake Gardiner was back in the lineup after sitting out against the Sabres. Out was John-Michael Liles, who had a sore neck after he was steam-rolled by the Sabres’ Paul Gaustad. Gardiner could have a chat with NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan after a high hit on Tim Wallace.
Liles, whom Wilson expects will be in the lineup in Florida versus the Panthers on Tuesday, had played in every game this season. His absence means just four Leafs — captain Dion Phaneuf and Kessel, Lupul and Nikolai Kulemin — have played in all 35 games so far in 2011-12.
What was encouraging was the continued contribution from players who aren’t part of the Lupul-Bozak-Phil Kessel trio. Wilson has found a solid mix in MacArthur, Tim Connolly and Kadri, and that line combined for five points. There’s a chemistry that’s already evident, even though Kadri has been around for just two games. Kadri has scored in both games.
“They played well,” Wilson said of the Connolly line. “Timmy was seeing the ice. Clarke is skating a lot better. Nazem is making all the right plays, and was good in our end. I can’t remember him turning one over.”
As Phaneuf pointed out, the break is not really that, as the Leafs will have just two days off before practising on Monday. But mentally, it could have been a lot worse.
“Look at a game like tonight,” Phaneuf said. “We came out really well and had a little bit of a lapse, but it was good to see how we responded to finish it in such a tight game.
“We said we wanted to go into the break feeling good about ourselves, and we are. Every point is huge. Now we can use these days to re-charge and enjoy the holiday.”