February 7, 2012
Leafs still looking good to crash the playoffsKessel reaches 30 goals for third year in a row ... Don't get on Wilson for not starting Reimer
By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
TORONTO - We’ll let them lock up a playoff spot before we get to the crazy talk, but how high should the mostly hot Leafs be aiming the rest of the way?
Not only is the Eastern Conference playoff tight at the bottom, it’s getting that way in the middle as well, meaning that an extension of their recent form could allow the Leafs to put some heat on a few teams in front of them as well as holding off those chasing.
Though they let one get away in Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, their second game in as many nights, the Leafs only lost a point on Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, two teams not so far in front.
Thanks to the continuing free fall of the Ottawa Senators, the Leafs remained in seventh with 62 points, just three behind the Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils.
Next up is the Flyers at 67, a gap the Leafs can narrow with a win in Philly on Thursday night.
Sure, it’s probably just wishful thinking for Leafs fans at this point, given the team is early in a 15-games-in-31-nights stretch that will test them. But with a full and healthy roster and momentum from a strong post all-star break run, it certainly has to be a goal for the team.
Finishing in sixth avoids a likely first-round date with either the New York Rangers or Boston Bruins. Fourth place gets not just a playoff series for the first time in seven years, but home ice for a round.
The Leafs are going to lose their share like they did on Tuesday. But the team’s ability to avoid sustained losing streaks all season gives them reason to aim as high as they can.
Great stick-handle and delay move by Phil Kessel to throw off Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec for the Leafs’ lone goal. It was 30 for Kessel in 54 games which has him on pace to easily hit 40 for the first time of his career. In his 32-goal season last campaign, Kessel didn’t hit the 30 mark until game 79 ... Leafs needed much more from the big line though as Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak managed just one shot on goal ... There are some, namely opposing coaches, who would claim there is no way this should happen. But when Kessel took a silly relatiation slash penalty in the second period, it ended a stretch of more than 138 minutes that the Leafs had gone without a penalty. Credit to the disciplined play, but there must have been something in there that could have been called ... Stop it with the James Reimer should have had the start talk. Even when (if?) there is a clear No. 1 and No. 2, most coaches would share some of the workload in a four-game work week ... Jonas Gustavsson struggled early — and should have stopped the Jets first goal — but settled down later ... On the Jets second goal midway through the middle period, Bryan Little out-hustled speedy Matthew Lombardi to bury a rebound that no Leafs defender was alert enough to clear ... With the Little goal, it was the incredibly the first time in seven games that the Jets had scored more than one goal in regulation time ... Wise plan of attack by the Jets who came into the game determined to match the Leafs speed and hope the visitors were too weary from the game in Toronto the night before ... The Leafs power play certainly could use some work. On a crucial man advantage midway through the third and trailing by a goal, the unit couldn’t manage a shot on net.
Good stat from @randynumbers on twitter: Kessel is just the second Leaf to score 30-plus goals in each of his first three seasons with the team. Ed Olczyk was the other, from 1987-89 ... Lost count of how many times the Leafs tried to make the one extra pretty pass rather than firing ... Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf was big-game hunting from the start, almost knocking Evander Kane’s block off early in the first. Good thing for both that the flying elbow hit nothing but air. It was Kane’s first-game back after sitting out seven with a concussion ... In the second, Phaneuf didn’t miss with a rocking open-ice hit on Zach Bogosian ... While it was a big game for both teams, the Jets needed it most having gone 5-10-1 since their big New Year’s Eve win against the Leafs. Though some of it is out of their control, the Jets are such a drastically different team on the road than they are at home that its going to be tough for them to stick around the playoff race. With the win, their record at the MTS was bumped to 16-8-2 and insured a season split with the Leafs. The home team prevailed in all four meetings ... The Leafs killed off both Jets penalties to push their success streak to 24 in a row. The previous time the penalty kill unit was violated was in their previous visit to the MTS Centre on New Year’s Eve.