OTTAWA – Mikhail Grabovski is proving his worth to the Leafs.
Stringing together 11 goals and 23 points in the last 21 games – currently in the midst of a four-game point streak in which he's registered nine points – the 28-year-old impending UFA is asserting himself as a rather integral part of a club pushing toward the postseason (currently 8th in the East, 8-4-1 in the New Year).
The skill-set of the five-foot-eleven Belarusian is a rather unique blend of raw skill and rugged tenacity.
"First of all, he's a great skater and he's really skilled," Carl Gunnarsson observed.
"His skating helps him a lot," Gunnarsson continued. "He's not a big guy so he's not going to crush guys down in the corner or anything, but he plays it smart…When he's coming up the ice and he's trying to make those moves his feet are so wide apart so he's got that balance too and keeps the speed."
Grabovski started slowly this season with just seven goals and 13 points in his first 24 games, but began to rediscover the flair of last season just before the New Year. A recommitment to the defensive zone sparked the influx of offence, notably in January when he posted 16 points in 12 games.
"He didn't have too many points in a couple of games there and then he scored two in Florida I think and after that he just took off," Gunnarsson said, referencing a two-goal outing from Grabovski in late December. "He started to create more and he was starting to do the defensive work better and after that the offence came too I think."
Rediscovered chemistry with Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin has also helped matters; the trio has been responsible for eight of the team's last nine goals while also performing capably in a shutdown capacity.
"That line with Mac, him and Kulie, when they're working well the puck is like on a string," Gunnarsson said. "I don't know how they do it, but it seems like they always think a step ahead."
On pace for 30 goals and 60 points – after career-highs of 29 and 58 last season – Grabovski is by far the Leafs most productive asset down the middle and certainly due a raise from the $2.9 million he's earned in each of the last three seasons.
Assigning that value may prove tricky with uncertainty surrounding both the cap and next collective bargaining agreement.
1. James Reimer makes his second consecutive start in goal in Ottawa on Saturday after posting a 25-save shutout against Pittsburgh on Wednesday. The road hasn't been kind to the 23-year-old. In eight starts away from Toronto, Reimer has posted a 1-4-1 mark with a bloated 4.02 goals against average and .868 save percentage. At home he's been considerably better with a 7-1-3 record, 2.14 goals against average and .926 save percentage.
2. Ron Wilson offered the following explanation on his decision to start Reimer against the Senators in favour of Jonas Gustavsson, who had a strong month of January (7-3-1) but faltered down the stretch (along with his teammates) of a 5-4 shootout loss to Pittsburgh earlier this week. "It's who we feel most comfortable with and who's playing well," Wilson said. "Reims' deserves to back up the shutout he had the other night by getting another start."
3. Like Reimer, the Leafs have had their fair share of trouble on the road of late, winning just three times in their last 11 games (3-6-2). They've allowed 40 goals in that stretch for an average of 3.63 per game. The difference on home ice is striking. The club has won eight of their last 11 at the ACC (8-3-0), yielding just 18 goals for an average of 1.63 per game.
4. Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul have hit their first extended skid of the season, combining for just three goals in the last 10 games. "We knew at the start of the year – I remember saying it a bunch of times too – it's probably not going to be smooth-sailing for our line the whole way through as far as points go," Lupul said. "Right now, just keep working and we're going to have one of those breakout games sooner or later." "They're getting the shots, they're getting scoring chances, and it's just one of those times where the well's a little dry," Wilson said. "They get a goal here or there and suddenly their confidence will bloom just like it has for Grabo or Clarke MacArthur in the last couple weeks." Kessel and Lupul have combined for six goals and 11 points in four games versus Ottawa this season. "The team's winning so it's not an issue where you can really get too down on yourself because you're letting the team down," Lupul concluded. "We're winning games and other guys are stepping up and that's what good teams do."
5. Of note and certainly a factor in the recent struggles of the duo has been the suddenly ineffective Leaf powerplay, 2-28 in the last nine games. "That's something with John-Michael Liles back [from injury] that we hope will improve and that'll also give those guys an offensive boost as well," Wilson said.