Wilson finally has his full lineup playing
|Maple Leafs forward Nikolai Kulemin and defenceman Carl Gunnarsson cover Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont., Feb. 1, 2012. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency)
TORONTO - It has taken close to four months and 51 games, but Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre, Leafs coach Ron Wilson finally got a chance to fill in his roster sheet just the way it was drawn up coming out of training camp.
Not that the newcomers had a dramatic impact on the result, but the Leafs survived a tight-checking affair to score a 1-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
With the return of forward Colby Armstrong and defenceman John-Michael Liles, the Leafs had a completely healthy lineup for the first time this season. Add in James Reimer, whose inactivity of late was more performance-related, and the result was a big win that keeps them well within an Eastern Conference playoff position. For now.
The closing of the hospital ward forced the need for some roster moves with unproductive forward Nazem Kadri and inconsistent defenceman Keith Aulie sent down to the Marlies.
Once they shake the rust off and assuming they remain healthy (and until GM Brian Burke makes some changes this month) this is for the most part the look the Leafs will offer down the stretch.
“I felt like a 31-year-old out there,” Liles said. “I was just trying to get my legs back and definitely felt it out there in the third.”
As high energy as the opener of the back-to-back was Tuesday in Pittsburgh, this one was dull early and much tighter checking — particularly from the Penguins — throughout. In other words, it’s the kind of hockey the Leafs expect to see plenty of the next couple of months. “That was a playoff game,” Leafs defenceman Cody Franson said. “That’s tight-checking, hard-hitting. It was a fast pace out there and it stayed tight right to the end. They came hard at us all night. It doesn’t make for the easiest night when teams do that to you.” ... The playoff talk is something we’ll hear a lot of, obviously, but the Leafs are off to a big post-break start despite the blown lead Tuesday. “That’s three out of four points in a back-to-back against a really good team,” Liles said ... Despite his weariness, the effectiveness of Liles was apparent from the outset, particularly on the power play and moving the puck forward. “(Liles) getting pucks out of danger in our zone is huge,” Wilson said.
With the return of Liles, Mike Komisarek was the odd man out and healthy scratch Wednesday. Wilson said he’ll rotate the seven bodies on the roster which means, in his words: “Someone’s going to be unhappy every night.” ... It’s clear that a healthy Armstrong is a welcome addition as he showed, forcing a couple turnovers in the first period while logging fourth-line duties with Mike Brown and David Steckel. An Armstrong that could stick around would be even more so. The gritty winger was back in the lineup after his latest setback of 18 games due to a concussion, the fifth injury that has kept him out of multiple games in a little more than a season and a half here ... Another plus of Liles’ return: Wilson was able to put Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson back together as a defensive pairing ... Underrated side of Franson, who has settled into some steady play for a long stretch now, is that even speedy forwards have trouble getting around him ... Brown dropped his gloves ready to scrap with Matt Cooke midway through the second period. The supposedly repented Cooke wanted no part of it, but couldn’t resist a slash at the feisty Leaf as he skated back to the bench ... As they did for most of Tuesday’s game, the Leafs did a solid job shutting down Evgeni Malkin. For the first time in 12 games against the Leafs, Malkin was held pointless.
SHUFFLE IT UP
No surprise Kadri was the forward demoted to the Marlies to make room for Armstrong. With four goals and one assist in 17 games, the offensive output isn’t consistent enough. What must drive the Leafs coaching staff crazy is that his energy level and impact tends to wane after a half-dozen games or so up with the big team. Kadri has no one to blame but himself, however, as Wilson has given him plenty of opportunity with legitimate line mates. Said Wilson: “He needs to go down and play and gather some confidence.” ... Aulie was the odd man out on defence to make room for Liles. Would have been tough to send down rookie Jake Gardiner, who has been logging 22 minutes-plus a game lately ... Armstrong clearly had no lingering hesitation from his concussion as he wasn’t afraid to use his body. Most notable was a solid hit on the Pens’ Brooks Orpik early in the third. QUICK HITS
Clarke MacArthur’s 16th goal of the season at 13:55 of the third — the only score in the game — was just his third at the Air Canada Centre ... Do the Penguins miss Sidney Crosby? Of course they do, but in the 84 games that Sid the Kid has been absent over the past two seasons, they have an impressive 47-29-8 record ... Bet the over! Prior to last night, anyway. The previous six times the Pens and Leafs met they averaged 7.33 goals per game ... Wednesday’s game was scoreless through two periods, only the second time for the Leafs this season ... Not to worry Grapes, as he usually does during the Luke’s Troops segment, Wilson applauded.