TORONTO - Your top players have to make the biggest plays in the most crucial moments.
No, we’re not talking about Tim Connolly, who only had to put his stick on the ice to score the winning goal in overtime in the Maple Leafs’ 4-3 victory in Edmonton on Wednesday night.
Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf made Toronto’s odd-man rush happen, when he got back to the Toronto zone and lifted the stick of the Oilers’ Ryan Whitney, who appeared to be ready to drill the puck past goaltender James Reimer.
The night before, in a lopsided loss in Calgary, Phaneuf had one of his worst games of the season. But he rebounded well in Edmonton and led all players in ice time.
The Leafs are going to need more of those performances from their captain in the final couple of months.
Importantly, the Leafs gained two large points, putting a bit more room between themselves and the ninth-place Washington Capitals.
The final 20 minutes represented a major gut-check for the Leafs, whose blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 2-0 lead early in the first period was long gone. They had been outplayed by the Oilers in the second period, mustering just three shots.
As for Connolly? His miscue in the Oilers end helped send the home team the other way in overtime. But Phaneuf saved his butt. Until then, it was easy to forget that coach Ron Wilson tried to light a spark under Connolly by putting him on a line with Mikhail Grabovski.
How much has Jake Gardiner grown in his rookie season? He was paired with Mike Komisarek in order, essentially, to ensure the veteran didn’t run into too much trouble. Trading Gardiner, even in a deal that could bring Rick Nash to Toronto, would be painful for many Leafs fans ... The game was Gardiner’s 52nd of the season, the most he has played in any season since he was a kid, and he marked it by scoring on a one-timer in the third to give the Leafs a lead for a brief time ... Keith Aulie, who made the cross-country trek to Calgary from Toronto on Tuesday, made his presence felt immediately. On the first shift of the game, Aulie beat Eric Belanger to the puck in the corner to the left of Reimer and fed it up-ice to Phil Kessel, who in turn set up Joffrey Lupul for Toronto’s first goal ... The Leafs figured they would get a power-play boost when John-Michael Liles returned from a concussion but that hasn’t happened. Liles has been absent from the scoresheet in eight games since coming back, and he can’t get on track when the Leafs have a man advantage. After hanging around the power-play leaders in the NHL, the Leafs had fallen to 10th. Coming back from an injury in mid-season is difficult at best, but harder, it can be safely assumed, when a concussion is involved. It’s like trying to pull on to the highway when everyone else is going 100 miles an hour ... No surprise that Joey Crabb was nudged out of the lineup by Colby Armstrong. In eight games since the all-star break, Crabb has no points and is minus-3 ... He might not be looking for a goaltender, but GM Brian Burke has to be a bit concerned that the Leafs still don’t have a clear No. 1 netminder with just 24 games remaining. That should have been established long ago. Reimer, in all likelihood, will get another start on Saturday in Vancouver against the Canucks.
FROM THE HASH MARKS
Luke Schenn’s name continues to be part of trade speculation, but if you’re one of the general managers interested in him, does some of the shine come off knowing that he was a healthy scratch in such a crucial game? Perhaps. Still, trading a 22-year-old defenceman whose best days are ahead of him wouldn’t be an overly wise move for the Leafs to make ... There is little not to like when two fast teams such as the Leafs and Oilers hook up. Sure, there were glaring defensive deficiencies on both sides, but the entertainment value was high. During the first, there was an 11-minute span when there were just three whistles, and each club had excellent scoring chances. We’ll take that over a defensive chess match any day ... Taylor Hall isn’t just another pretty face for the youthful Oilers. He crushed Gardiner with a hard body check late in the first period, not long after he nearly twisted Phaneuf into the ice on a one-on-one rush ... Nikolai Kulemin was a half-step behind Hall when the latter scored his 20th in the second period ... Cody Franson had two assists and was fairly sharp all night on the Leafs blue line ... Speaking of defencemen, the NHL career of former Leaf Bryan McCabe is over. McCabe, who played 523 games in a Leafs sweater (the most time he spent with one NHL team) said to the Miami Herald on Wednesday night: “I’m done. I’m retired. The offers came in, but I don’t want to leave (Florida, where he lives).” Filing retirement papers is just a formality.