The Maple Leafs’ media notes list scorers by sweater number each game, making it easy to track the highs and lows.
And with so much talk of the latter, it should be noted that Saturday was the first time 84, 16, 42 and 81 appeared on the same line. Their stock represents 66% of the top two lines: Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur, Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel, respectively. The resulting 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres, with Grabovski and Kessel scoring in the third-period comeback, underlined a key part of where this playoff push will be decided.
Coach Ron Wilson used the six relentlessly in the Buffalo game and they must sustain that scoring balance over the final 13 games, starting Monday here against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The notoriously streaky Kessel was one of the forwards Wilson meant to prod when he delivered a rare late-game state-of-the-union in the second intermission with the Leafs down 3-2.
“We definitely appealed to them to be our best players,” assistant coach Tim Hunter said Sunday at the MasterCard Centre. “As the game went along, slowly they were, with Phil scoring the game winner using his speed, (defenceman) Luke Schenn driving the net and the big (tying) goal by Grabo.
“Dion (Phaneuf) has been probably been our best player, skating a thousand miles a night and that’s what we need out of Phil and the other guys on those top two lines.”
As recently as last week, Wilson’s concern over lack of production by the silent six led him to wrench MacArthur off the first line with Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, replace him with Kessel and have Joffrey Lupul change wings. Kessel likes to play exclusively with his off-ice pal Bozak, who has been the most offensively challenged of the sextet.
“All we did was change our lines for a period and a half and try and breathe some life in,” Wilson said. “Sometimes, guys get stale, throw it on auto-pilot and stop looking, expecting and thinking that they have to be places. You have to have your head up. If you’re not focusing, things aren’t going to happen and those lines weren’t scoring for two or three games.”
An extra goal looms large at any time, but Saturday was the 15th time in the past 20 games that Toronto has been involved in a one-goal decision. In that post-Feb. 1 span, the Leafs have a record of 11-4-5. But whatever gains they made by beating Buffalo were nullified with the next 24 hours when the New York Rangers beat the San Jose Sharks out west on Saturday night and the Sabres outlasted the Ottawa Senators at home on Sunday.
“This is our playoffs before the playoffs, hopefully,” Hunter said. “Our guys are excited and energetic, but today’s (optional practice) was a day off to have energy for tomorrow night.”
The top six were not on the ice, nor was the heavily taxed Phaneuf, Schenn and goalie James Reimer. Monday would be a 12th consecutive start for the rookie Reimer, whose 39-save effort against Buffalo followed a pattern of heavy duty since he became No. 1. He sat eighth in league save percentage before Sunday night at .922 in 25 games.
“He’s definitely a hard worker who doesn’t let things get to him,” winger Joey Crabb praised. “And when he does, he owns up to it and then he moves on. That’s all you can ask from a goalie, to move on to the next puck.”
Reimer and several other Leafs have joked that the past six weeks have been a blur, one nail-biting game after another. But the knockout blow hasn’t been delivered, despite losing three veterans in trades, Reimer hasn’t cracked and they are starting to feel some love in home games.
“That was the best feeling in that rink so far this year,” winger Colby Armstrong said of Saturday. “I don’t know what it was in the third period, we got a couple of chances and the building started to rock.
“But we have to make it count on Monday. We aren’t getting too many pretty games, but we’re finding ways to stay in them.”