TORONTO – Struggling by their own consistent standards of late, Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul will get a familiar face back at centre on Tuesday night.
Tyler Bozak will return to centre the Leafs top line when the surging Ottawa Senators visit the ACC, perhaps the jump-start Kessel (48 points) and Lupul (47 points) need after a three-game skid in which neither found the scoresheet, the longest such occurrence for either player this season.
"I don't think it's anything to worry about," Bozak said of his linemates' recent slowdown. "There's going to be ups and downs throughout a year no matter what. I'm just happy to be back with such good players again."
Consistency has been a hallmark of Kessel and Lupul all year long - the duo are arguably tops in that respect league-wide. Up until this most recent dip, neither player had gone consecutive games without a point. And while three games is hardly cause for alarm, it does stand out in a year of such steady production.
Tim Connolly joined the pair to begin the New Year (five points in three games) and found sparks, but the trio stalled this past week, most notably on Saturday when both Kessel and Lupul failed to register a shot in a 3-0 loss to the Rangers. New York made obvious and rather successful attempts to bully the Leafs dynamic duo with brute physicality.
"Obviously [Kessel] and Loops have been against the top D and top checking forwards and I think they're playing them pretty physical as much as they can and obviously trying to slow 'em down," Bozak said. "When you've got speed like those two guys you've got to hit 'em or else they're going to be able to generate their speed and create a lot of chances."
Growing comfortable with his place alongside the two all-stars, Bozak posted 20 points in a 22-game stretch – including his first seven goals of the season – before tumbling into the boards at practice in Winnipeg on December 31 and missing the next seven games.
"He's earned that position with the way he's played with those guys this year," Ron Wilson said, following a Monday practice at Mastercard Centre. "When we started the season – training camp – when you're putting your lines together I was thinking that Timmy Connolly would be the logical choice there, but Bozie's played so well in substituting for Timmy."
Dealing with a suspected left shoulder injury for the past two weeks, Bozak required just the single practice with teammates before declaring himself fit to return.
"Every now and again you can feel it again a little bit," he said, "but it's all healed up. It's just pain that I have to deal with myself now. It's not too big of a problem."
1. Kessel had a four-game goal streak going before this most recent struggle, including one in three straight at home. The 24-year-old has been terrific at the ACC this season, totaling 17 goals in 22 games. He's already surpassed the 15 he had in Toronto all of last season.
2. James Reimer is set to make his first start since December 31 on Tuesday. Reimer won just three of eleven starts in December (3-4-3), yielding three or more on eight occasions. Jonas Gustavsson started six straight to begin 2012, winning four in a row before falling in the past two. "Ron makes decisions which he thinks are best for the team," Reimer said. "Any time you're not playing obviously it's frustrating in the sense that you want to be out there, you want to be helping the team, but in that instance, in that circumstance, I knew my role, which was just to support Monsty and support the team, have a good attitude. That's what I tried to do." The 23-year-old is 3-0-1 lifetime against Ottawa with a 1.97 goals against average and .929 save percentage.
3. After potting an assist in a one-game stint with the Marlies on Sunday, Jake Gardiner will check back into the Leaf lineup versus Ottawa. The 21-year-old was a healthy scratch the previous four games, relegated to the press box following the return of Mike Komisarek from a broken arm on January 7. "We need that speed in our lineup," Wilson said, noting the continued absence of John-Michael Liles. "We want to get pucks out a little bit quicker and have some more speed on the back-end so that's why we want to put him back in." Gardiner averaged over 21 minutes a game in December, posting two assists and a minus-3 rating. Wilson declined to reveal who would come out in his place.
4. Positive news for the Leafs on the concussion front. Colby Armstrong and Liles both took to the ice prior to Monday's practice. It was the first skate of any kind for Liles since December 22, the night he was rocked by Sabres forward Paul Gaustad. The 31-year-old has missed the last 10 games. Armstrong meanwhile, returns to the ice for the first time since early January when he suffered a setback in his recovery. He's been out the past 12 games and has played in only nine games all year.
5. Sticking with a change he made during Saturday's loss to New York, Wilson has kept the once-prosperous unit of Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur together. With the first unit hitting a wall of sorts lately, the Leafs would stand to benefit from consistent production out of their second unit. "It's true," Grabovski said. "We can't win the games just [having] one line. I think we need to support [the] first line." Grabovski has been the hottest Leaf of late, totaling 13 points in the last 14 games.