Leafs captain's crunch costly
Rob Longley, QMI Agency
|Dion Phaneuf. (ERNEST DOROSZUK, QMI Agency)
The Maple Leafs may have plenty of beefs about the officiating in Friday’s 5-4 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, but one play isn’t up for much debate.
Captain Crunch, Dion Phaneuf, had a rare lapse in common sense when drilling an opponent and was rightfully ejected from the game late in the second period when he plowed Sabres forward Zack Kassian into the end boards.
The boarding major was automatic because of the hit from behind, the ejection the same because Kassian was cut on the lip. As he does with any such incident, NHL disciplinarian, Brendan Shanahan will review the play.
While clearly a hit from behind, there didn’t appear to be intent and it was far from violent, so we’re guessing there won’t be a suspension.
The worst part of it for the Leafs, of course, is that they lost a defensive minute-muncher for the rest of the night, not to mention the five-minute power-play that helped the Sabres take a 4-2 lead to the dressing room for the second intermission.
Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul opened the scoring but the play was all Phil Kessel. It started in the Leafs zone as he blew by Tomas Vanek then held the puck long enough to fake out Ryan Miller in the Sabres net before feeding his linemate. It was the 24th time Lupul and Kessel had combined on a goal this season ... There’s been plenty to love about rookie Jake Gardiner’s play this season, but it was a rough second period for the big rookie blue-liner. On the Sabres’ first power-play goal, Gardiner got trapped chasing Vanek behind the net leaving Drew Stafford alone in front. On Buffalo’s second, Gardiner was badly stripped of the puck in his own zone by Kassian ... How significant was that Phaneuf power-play goal? Incredibly, the Leafs had gone 48 power-play chances against the Sabres, dating through 13-plus games. They also came into this game on a 2-for-31 stretch with the man advantage ... He wouldn’t be the first sniper to carry on this way, but Kessel sure lets his teammates know if he thinks they should have got him the puck. Kessel looked visibly upset a couple of times heading back to the bench ... How crazy was that six-goal second period? The Leafs twice had a lead yet went into the dressing room trailing 4-2.
YES, IT'S A KILLER
Phaneuf told us earlier this week that the Leafs struggles on the penalty-kill were “blown out of proportion.” No one will be making that claim now. The three Sabres power-play goals in the second period ensured that for the 10th time this season one of the NHL’s worst PK units had given up two or more goals in a game ... So, why is it so poor? How much time do you have? On the first Sabres goal, Luke Schenn had two clear chances to clear the zone but couldn’t. Then there’s the hockey theorem that your goalie is your best penalty killer. James Reimer owned a gruesome .765 save percentage when a man down entering Friday’s game and, while two of the three that beat him were great shots, the third was what should have been a routine save. Overall, the Leafs seem to be too passive. On all three goals, Sabres got in great shooting position.
How much pressure must have Nikolai Kulemin been feeling on his first career penalty shot in the third period? In the midst of a 23-game scoring slump, Kulemin made the goal-scorer’s move with a great backhand-forehand move to beat Miller ... It was only the second goal the Sabres netminder has given up in 13 career penalty shots ... While it looked like a Kessel giveaway on Vanek’s late goal to give the Sabres a 5-3 lead, the Leafs forward was hammered from behind with a cross-check by Sabres defenceman Mike Weber ... The Sabres are now 30-12-1 against the lockout vs. the Leafs, a better record than they have against any other team ... With his assist, Kessel now has a point in 24 of his past 31 games.
Much talk lately about who the Leafs’ biggest rival is, but Lupul put it best when he said pre-game Friday that it won’t really be a real one until both teams are in the playoffs. Heading into Friday night’s contest they were significantly closer than they’ve been in a while. The previous time each team was in a playoff position at the same time was Jan. 6, 2007 ... The outburst in the middle 20 was the Sabres’ first four-goal period of the season ... The Sabres have now won 30 of 40 meetings against the Leafs since the lockout and halted Toronto’s three-game win streak in the series ... The two teams meet three more times between now and Jan. 13, starting with next Thursday’s tilt at the Air Canada Centre ... The Sabres have dressed nine rookies this season, one fewer than the league leader in that department, the Philadelphia Flyers.