TORONTO – Third in league scoring, John Tavares entered the evening with at least a point in all but three of the Islanders 21 games this season.
"Four now," Carl Gunnarsson told the Leaf Report proudly following a 5-2 victory over New York on Tuesday night, the club's fifth straight at home.
Gunnarsson was among the stable that kept Tavares, who has 25 points this season, off the scoresheet entirely. The Islanders captain finished with just two shots and was rarely a threat, bottled up by the top pair of Gunnarsson and Dion Phaneuf and a recently assembled shutdown line of Jay McClement, Mason Raymond and Nik Kulemin.
Tavares entered the night with eight goals and 16 points in 15 career games against the Leafs and had been responsible for 43 per cent of his team's offence this season. But he was held pointless for just the fourth time all season.
"We played tight on him, we played hard and we didn't give him much time in our own end," Gunnarsson said of Tavares, who played alongside fellow top scorer Kyle Okposo and rookie Brock Nelson. "We could've done some stuff better too, but when that line doesn't score we give ourselves a pretty good chance to win the game."
Randy Carlyle has yet to employ a shutdown line consistently against opposing top lines so far this season – often using his top unit when healthy – but he did against the Islanders.
As McClement explained it, the assignment isn't known to players until game-time and often beyond that. Unlike Andy Murray, his longtime coach in St. Louis, who would present line matchups to the group on a whiteboard in the morning, Carlyle prefers to keep his close to the vest.
"He won't let you know too often," McClement said of Carlyle, leading Leaf forwards with over 20 minutes on Tuesday. "You don't really know until you start the game. And even the first shift we didn't start against them and then we played every other shift against them. You never know. Maybe it's a good thing. You're not thinking about it, you're just ready to play."
What the McClement unit did effectively most of the night against Tavares, who had points in five straight, was keep him on the defensive. With consistent pressure and a simple chip-and-chase game, the line spent a good chunk of their shifts against him deep in the offensive zone. They would be rewarded when Raymond scored the eventual game-winner early in the third, the 27-year-old capping a McClement drive to the crease of Islanders goaltender Kevin Poulin.
"We got to pucks on the forecheck and ended up having a lot of shifts in their end," McClement said, also beating Tavares on 10 of 19 draws. "That's the easiest way to play defence is play offence."
1. Home ice dominance
While they've yet to establish a consistent brand of hockey (see below) the Leafs have nonetheless strung together a strong record through the quarter-mark of the season (13-7-1).
Part of that success emanates from their effective showing on home ice.
The Leafs have now won five straight at home and seven of their past eight, and are now 8-2-0 on the year at the ACC. They've outscored opponents 35-23 in that span, more effective offensively (3.5 goals per game) and defensively (2.3 goals against per game) than on the road.
"That was one of the goals we wanted to create is when teams come into this building there's no more of this two points, kiss your relatives and go home," said Carlyle. "It's enough of that."
With another power-play marker – this one from Phil Kessel – the Leafs also continued a trend of home dominance on the power-play; they rank first with a 32.4 per cent success rate.
2. Clarkson breaks the goose egg
Without a goal in the first 10 games of his late-starting season, David Clarkson finally broke through with his first as a Leaf against the Islanders. The 29-year-old rifled a shot beyond the glove of Poulin midway through the final period, benefiting from the effective work of Joffrey Lupul and Trevor Smith down low in the offensive zone.
"The better feeling is coming in here after a win and turning on that music," said Clarkson, who played nearly 19 minutes, adding five hits. "That's the best feeling to me ever."
3. Gardiner on the left
When Mark Fraser returned from a left knee injury last week – he's since re-injured a different part of the knee – Carlyle juggled his defence pairings, opting to move Jake Gardiner back to his natural left side position alongside Cody Franson. Gardiner had never played the right before and often appeared uncertain and inconsistent there alongside Paul Ranger.
"I think I've felt a lot more comfortable offensively," Gardiner told the Leaf Report prior to Tuesday's game. "I still have to fine-tune some things, but I feel like I see the ice a lot better from the left side."
The 23-year-old is also pleased to be reunited with Franson, with whom he's played alongside for a good chunk of his NHL career. "We even talked about it – we know where each other are on the ice," said Gardiner of Franson. "There's some plays that we do a lot of that seem to work and we know exactly when they're going to be there, whether it's in the offensive zone, neutral zone or defensive zone. He's a vocal guy too. It's really easy to play with him. Hopefully he feels the same way."
Gardiner led the Leafs with over 22 minutes against the Islanders, including 19:42 at even-strength.
4. Kessel durability
Phil Kessel played his first game as a Leaf on Nov. 3, 2009; he sat out the first 12 games recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. The 26-year-old has not missed a game since.
Kessel extended his iron-man streak to 303 consecutive games, breaking a recent dry spell with a pair of goals against the Islanders. A bout with the flu a day earlier put his games played streak in jeopardy, but the team's leading scorer remained in the lineup, paired with James van Riemsdyk and Peter Holland for the second straight game.
Kessel is a ways off the active leaders in consecutive games played. Jay Bouwmeester is the current iron man with 654 straight games played, according to TSN Research, trailed closely by Henrik Sedin at 651.
Only three players remain from the Toronto lineup that dressed on the night of Kessel's highly anticipated debut:
*Still with the team
5. Standing at the quarter pole
Joffrey Lupul offered the following assessment of the Leafs performance one quarter of the way into the season. "We've battled through a lot of injuries and we're still up near the top of the conference. That's a positive," said Lupul. "Is there things we can do better? For sure there is. But I'm sure every team in the league with the exception of maybe St. Louis or San Jose or one of these teams is saying the same thing. Everyone wants to do some things better. But it's early in the season and you're just finding that identity as a team and you want to eventually be a team that plays the same way every night and a team that improves throughout the year. We're not there yet, but we're still high in the standings so there's positives and negatives you could say."
Added Randy Carlyle,
"We've tried to create a template that we're more conservative from an offensive standpoint. We're not making the Hail Mary plays. We're not trying to just be a rush team. We're trying to do a lot of different things as far as getting away from just one and out. We want more puck possession time. There's been a lot said in our statistics proving out that we're having success when we shouldn't be. We look at it as we've been forced to do some things differently with personnel, suspensions and injuries. We are just trying to find a way to manufacture points. This isn't a development league we're in, it's about winning. The points that we can put up on the board, doesn't matter who we have in the lineup, it just bodes well for us in the future."
Bonus Point – Extending an opportunity
Trevor Smith played his first NHL game with the Islanders back on Dec. 31, 2008. On Tuesday against the same New York squad, the 28-year-old had a career-high three points. Playing alongside Lupul and Clarkson, Smith scored the game's opening goal 22 seconds into the first frame, adding a pair of assists in the third.
Plugging a hole at centre with Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland both injured, Smith has compiled at least a point in three games since being recalled from the Marlies last Friday, totaling three goals and five points in that span.
"The guys are making it really easy for me to come in and play and be confident to make plays with them," Smith said. "I was fighting the puck a little bit in the first, but they calmed me down and just told me to relax and do what I do and we went from there."
Nazem Kadri is due to return from a three-game suspension on Thursday, but it would appear that Smith has earned, at the very least, an extended opportunity. How long that opportunity lasts is unclear with Bozak likely to return Saturday following a lengthy stint on injured reserve.
1 – Goal for David Clarkson this season.
303 – Consecutive games played by Phil Kessel.
8-2-0 – Home record for the Leafs this season.
3 – Points for Trevor Smith against the Islanders, a career-high.
32.4 per cent – Leafs power-play effectiveness at home, first in the NHL.
3 – Assists for Joffrey Lupul against the Islanders, a season-high.
2 – Multi-assist games for Lupul this season.
13-16 – Faceoff mark for Jerred Smithson against the Islanders.
17:45 – Ice-time for Morgan Rielly.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 24.3 per cent
Season: 84 per cent
Quote of the Night
"That was one of the goals we wanted to create is when teams come into this building there's no more of this two points, kiss your relatives and go home. It's enough of that."
-Randy Carlyle on the Leafs home record.
Nazem Kadri returns from a three-game suspension when the Leafs host the Predators on Thursday night.