Bozak back on top
Rejoins Kessel, Lupul on first line
LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
|Maple Leafs forward Tyler Bozak celebrates a goal against the Canucks at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont., Dec. 17, 2011. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters)
TORONTO - Ron Wilson spent part of Sunday watching the spy flick Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
And Monday morning, the coach of the suddenly ninth-place Maple Leafs engaged in some subterfuge of his own. He switched a goaltender, defenceman and forward to confound any snoops from the Ottawa Senators who are trying to plot the latest Battle of Ontario.
Determined to nip a two-game losing streak in vital Eastern Conference playoff-shaping matches, Wilson will replace Jonas Gustavsson with James Reimer, rush Tyler Bozak back into a first-line role after two weeks on the shelf and give Jake Gardiner a new blue line lease after a one-game trip to the farm.
Reimer’s return was half-expected, given his 3-0-1 record against Ottawa and Gustavsson’s run of bad luck after four straight wins.
Bozak, likely getting his last chance to show Wilson and general manager Brian Burke he can handle the top job better than a trade acquisition, only had Monday’s practice at the MasterCard Centre to get up to speed.
“It shows the coach has confidence in me,” Bozak said. “I was only off 14 days (with a suspected shoulder injury). I felt good in practice. It’s a little pain now and then. I have to deal with it myself.”
Bozak will replace fourth-line energy forward Darryl Boyce on the roster after the latter picked up an undisclosed injury Saturday. But among the centres, Bozak will take on a bigger workload than Tim Connolly because he can potentially do more for first-liners Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. The two are in a season-worst three-game points slump, while Wilson says Connolly has a minor injury that’s hurt him on faceoffs. Wilson clearly wants his marquee wingers to have optimum conditions in such a big game.
“(Bozak) has earned that position,” Wilson said. “When we started this season and were putting lines together, I thought Connolly would be the logical choice. But Bozie’s played so well when Timmy was with other guys. The chemistry has been better.
“He’s been playing a 200-foot game and is closer in support positions defensively than last year. He was playing that well when he first came up (in 2009-10) and last year it kind of got away from him (a minus-29) when he was thinking about offence. It happens in a guy’s second year, his identity gets cloudy, but now he’s back to basics.”
With Wilson determined to reunite Clarke MacArthur, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski, Connolly resurfaced between Matthew Lombardi and Nazem Kadri. Joey Crabb dropped down to the fourth line with Mike Brown and David Steckel. All four lines expect to exchange plenty of hits with the physical Senators, despite them playing at home Monday night.
Reimer insisted he was fine with Wilson going back on a public pronouncement to change goalies after a loss, playing Gustavsson in back-to-back defeats.
“Whatever decision he makes, I trust it.” said Reimer, who hasn’t played since a New Year’s Eve loss in Winnipeg and has not won since before Christmas. “You want to play, but I knew my role was to support the Monster and have a good attitude.
“Any time you’re not playing, it motivates you. Hopefully, I can carry that on the ice. I have to be at the top of my crease when I need to be and give them as little to shoot at as possible, control a few rebounds and make it easier on my defencemen.”
One of them will be Gardiner, demoted Sunday morning after four games in the press box. He was put into a Marlies’ game that afternoon where he picked up an assist and was returned to the Leafs that night.
“It was a short day that worked out well,” Gardiner said. ”I was pretty pumped when I got called back.
“I kind of expected something like this to happen during the year, Being the young guy, it’s part of the deal.”
Wilson said he wanted to add some speed on the back line, which could mean Luke Schenn will be the odd man out when the lineup is filled Tuesday.
“We want to get ourselves back into a playoff spot, especially with an enemy such as Ottawa down the highway,” defenceman Keith Aulie said. “Knowing they’re physical and especially being at home, we want to take it to them early, let then know it will be a tough game. You don’t want to lose three in a row for sure.”