TORONTO - A January that started with such promise for the Maple Leafs was certainly in need of a big finish.
With more questions than answers these days about their competitive place in the Eastern Conference, a late January Monday date with the New York Islanders was suddenly a cause for concern.
The Leafs answered their latest challenge with a big defensive effort against the resurgent Islanders, scoring a 3-0 victory at a mostly quiet Air Canada Centre that showed the young team a great deal about what it can accomplish when it sticks to its game plan.
There was nothing quiet about the Leafs work on defence as they shut down one of the hottest scorers in the league, Isles sniper John Tavares, following a rigid blueprint to do just that and in the process earn goaltender Jonas Gustavsson his third shutout of the month.
With all the moaning from Leafs faithful this season about lack of secondary scoring, Matthew Lombardi scored the first and third goals giving him four in his past four games, book-ending an important insurance marker by Phil Kessel eight minutes into the third.
More importantly, the duo Leafs fans seem to gripe about the most for their lack of production — Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski — teamed with Joey Crabb to shadow Tavares, who came into town riding a 12-game point streak in which he had put up eight goals and 13 assists.
“They all can skate, they’re all willing to get in the way of a shot, but the most important thing is they collapse down low,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said after the game. “They weren’t thinking about offence unless they were through the neutral zone on the attack. They did a good job of harassing (the Tavares line) down low.”
While that line was embracing its checking role for a night, the defensive duo of captain Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson kept Tavares off balance throughout. And they did it by following the message preached repeatedly by the Leafs coaching staff of keeping their sticks low and restricting the talented forward’s space.
“He is tough down low,” said Gunnarsson of the challenge of defending Tavares, who managed just three shots on net. “He’s trying to sneak up behind you and go back door and in your blind spot.
“You’ve always got to keep your head on a swivel and keep track of him.”
If there was a weak point in the Leafs effort Monday, it was their inability to put away the Isles earlier in the game. They got the important quick start Wilson preached of with Lombardi’s opener just 1:37 in and outshot the visitors 16-5 in the first period.
But the Islanders hung in until Kessel’s goal 8:10 into the third as the Leafs withstood a panic phase Wilson said is more the function of a young team unsure about sticking to the plan.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking (when the game is so close) but all you keep saying is ‘Keep doing the right things,’” Wilson said. “Our age or lack of experience at times, it’s like we think because it’s only 1-0 we’re not doing something right so we have to change.”
With the victory, the Leafs moved into a tie for eighth with the Washington Capitals, who have a game in hand. They also moved three points up on 10th-place Winnipeg, which lost to Carolina on Monday and nine up on the Islanders who they will play again Tuesday night in Uniondale, N.Y.
The victory took a little sting out of the recent four losses in five games funk and gives them a big chance to head into the break with a positive vibe all around.
With nine of 12 home games in January, the Leafs were hoping to be safely in the top eight to position themselves for the battle that awaits. They still are in it, but the road suddenly turns uphill again. With eight of their next 11 contests will be away from the ACC, every little bit will help.
“It was a huge game for us, a chance to get some momentum coming into the break,” Lombardi said. “It’s a chance for us not to be on the outside looking in at this playoff race.”
It’s turning into a Monster month for the oft-beleaguered Leafs goaltending situation.
Jonas Gustavsson stopped 25 shots in what wasn’t exactly a hectic night in the Leafs net, but earned a third January shutout as he continues to establish himself as the team’s current No. 1.
While much of the credit goes to the defensive effort in front of him - praise the lanky Swede willingly delivers - his ability to shut the door on the opposition is clearly inspiring some confidence in the Leafs overall defensive effort.
Coach Ron Wilson, who said Gustavsson likely will be back in on Tuesday night in Long Island, said the Monster should have four SO’s if it weren’t for the sloppy late goal he allowed against Minnesota last week.
“We’ve been doing a good job in front of him and he’s been there for a big save every once in a while,” Wilson said. “But it’s huge when you’re not killing penalties and sapping your energy that way. We’ve made it a lot easier on our goaltenders since the New Year.”
In fact, the Leafs didn’t take a single penalty Monday against the Islanders in the 3-0 win.
Now sporting a decent 2.73 goals against average and .910 save percentage, Gustavsson said he is getting more confident as his workload increases.
“I would hope the more I play, the better I get,” said Gustavsson. “It means you are going to be in the right position and saves seem simpler."