January 18, 2012
Kessel, Lupul splitsville
By LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
TORONTO - Every time a losing streak has verged on four games, the Maple Leafs have successfully hit the reset button.
But the overhaul coach Ron Wilson initiated on Wednesday is no longer about pride on the line, it’s about rescuing a playoff spot. With three failed tests in games that test post-season mettle, out-scored 9-4 by Buffalo, New York and Ottawa, the Leafs simply can’t let the chance to beat a struggling Minnesota Wild team go by.
The poster boys for this year’s turbulent NHL, the Wild went from first in the league on Dec. 17 to a point out of the playoffs as they meet the Leafs on Thursday.
Wilson’s team will have a new look, starting with a change to the top line that at one time boasted two of the league’s top five scorers.
Joffrey Lupul was taken off Phil Kessel’s left wing, replaced by Matthew Lombardi, with Lupul joining Nazem Kadri and Tim Connolly. That takes the lone hefty winger away, but gives the often victimized unit some needed back-checking ability. The ripples went all the way down to the defence with Dion Phaneuf paired with Luke Schenn, which puts Phaneuf on the unfamiliar left side.
Wilson, whose team has not dropped four straight in eight close calls going back to November of 2010, has seen the most recent stumble drop the Leafs from seventh to ninth. He summed up his reasoning in one word.
“Balance. We have to keep more pucks out of our net, stop silly mistakes that result in goals and at the same time spread the scoring around. Some lines have been scored against way too much. At least for one period (Thursday), we’ll see something (new).”
Kessel and Lupul ended a season-worst three-game slump with a first period goal on Tuesday against Ottawa. Then the trouble started with those two and Tyler Bozak on the ice for two even-strength goals by Ottawa, including an awful one with eight seconds to go in the first period.
“We had been scored on a lot before so he wanted to change that up,” Bozak said. “You never know what’s going to happen. You lose a few games, you know there’s probably going to be changes. You never know who it’s going to be.”
Lombardi, who added a goal on Tuesday, is showing the dash he had before a season-ending injury in Nashville. The changes on defence, which started Tuesday with Mike Komisarek a healthy scratch for Jake Gardiner, saw Schenn and Phaneuf teamed for the first time since the latter’s arrival in January of 2010. The left-shooting Phaneuf has played the left side only a few times before, most recently for Canada at the 2011 world championship.
Schenn, who was a candidate to sit on Tuesday, saw this as a promotion, to form a hard-hitting tandem with the minute-munching captain.
“It would be a great opportunity to play solid defensively and play against the other teams’ top lines,” Schenn said.
At the end of Wednesday’s practice at the MasterCard Centre, all seven defencemen and assistant coach Rob Zettler had a meeting. It wasn’t as long as the blueline summit that followed a terrible post-Christmas road trip (Toronto won four straight after huddling) but it cleared the air.
“It was more of a discussion about communication, what our calls are and about talking more,” Phaneuf said. “We switched up the pairings, but we have no issues in our room when they shake up the lines and combinations. It’s part of the game.”
Toronto has four games until the all-star break, three of them at home.
“We’ve dug ourselves a little bit of a hole,” Phaneuf agreed. “But we have to start getting points again. We have a pretty intelligent room. Everyone knows what’s gone on. We’ve lost tight games and yet we’ve had opportunities to win those games. We have to respond to this slide in the right way.”