TORONTO – The fire was stoked on the plane ride back from Ohio late Friday evening.
“I think a lot of guys were embarrassed and disappointed with the Columbus game,” Carl Gunnarsson told the Leaf Report 24 hours later.
Mortified by their performance in an unseemly loss to the Blue Jackets, the Leafs deemed a response necessary with the imposing Penguins in town the following night at the Air Canada Centre. That response was a thorough 4-1 victory over Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company, one that featured contributions from a wide range of sources.
“We had to respond off our effort [Friday] and that's really what we asked of our group,” Randy Carlyle said after the win, the Leafs eighth this season. “We weren't happy with what we brought to the table as far as our effort and our commitment to playing a game and being tough on the puck and winning the 1-on-1 battles. We didn't have that [Friday] night in Columbus and we were bound and determined that we were going to make amends...”
The Leafs became just the second team in 11 games this season to hold Crosby off the scoresheet, the best player in the world slowed by a line featuring Dave Bolland, Mason Raymond and David Clarkson as well as the top defensive pairing of Gunnarsson and Dion Phaneuf.
Hard on Crosby and linemates, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, in all three zones, they were determined to keep the daunting trio in check. “We seemed to have that drive to win every battle,” said Gunnarsson, noting the efforts of the Bolland line on the back-check and in slowing Crosby through the neutral zone. “Of course Reims was good tonight too.”
Making his first start since Oct. 17, James Reimer kept all but one of 38 shots from the back of the Toronto net, the 25-year-old improving to 4-0-2 lifetime against the Penguins.
He was at his best – and needed to be – in the second frame, the Leafs outshot 16-4 in 20 minutes dominated by the Penguins. Midway through the period, Reimer made what proved the save of the night, sprawling out with a right pad stop on Pascal Dupuis to keep the game even at one.
“You don't win in this league without goaltending that gives you a chance and Reims gave us a chance,” Carlyle said. “We didn't have a very good second period obviously – we were hemmed in our zone and they had a lot more energy than we did.”
Held in by Reimer's effort in that middle frame, the Leafs surged in the final frame.
Filling in for the injured Tyler Bozak alongside Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri scored the eventual game-winner moments into the third. The 23-year-old took a dart pass from Kessel before dancing around a lunging Marc-Andre Fleury with a skillful backhand.
In addition to his work opposite Crosby, Bolland would also break free for a shorthanded goal in the opening frame, the first of two from the 27-year-old. With additional contributions from the likes of Colton Orr (10 sturdy minutes), Jay McClement, David Clarkson (seven hits), and the recently recalled Carter Ashton, the Leafs managed what was truly a team victory.
The persistent, speedy, and determined identity that was so lacking one night earlier was evident throughout, just as it was earlier in the week against the Ducks.
“We didn't want to lose two in a row and we wanted to show that we could go back to playing how we played against Anaheim, especially when we're at home too,” said Gunnarsson.
1. Reimer's Evening
Reimer improved to 3-0-0 on the year with the 37-save performance, his save percentage rising to .933 in the process. Under considerable pressure in the second frame, he was also sturdy throughout a busy opening period. Though he was beaten far-side by Kris Letang on the game's opening goal, Reimer did halt Malkin moments before Bolland knotted the score at one.
“With an offence like that, I mean they're gifted plain and simple and as good as you play, as good defensively and as sound defensively as we play I think there's going to come a time where they're going to hem you in; whether it be one shift or five shifts in a row or half a period you name it, that's just the kind of team they are; and as a team, you've got to just be resilient and ride out the storm.
“You've got to fight and find a way to ride it out,” he continued. “That's part of what good teams do.”
Jonathan Bernier had started the previous three games for the Leafs. Reimer hadn't played since he was knocked out 32 seconds the Leafs' Oct. 17 game against the Hurricanes.
2. Kadri Emerges Opposite Malkin
With Bolland's trio squaring off against Crosby, it was up to Kadri, Kessel and van Riemsdyk to slow Malkin. Slow him they did. Malkin was held to just two shots, registering an assist on Letang's power-play goal.
“He's a world-class player,” Kadri said of Malkin. “It's definitely hard to cover him, especially with how big and how skilled [he is] and he can skate too.”
Kadri was feisty and often electric in nearly 20 minutes against the Penguins, providing the kind of sizzle and skill that Bozak ultimately does not possess. Unlike the injured top centreman, though, he has yet to prove that he can withstand the defensive rigours of playing in such a high-profile position. His determined effort against Malkin was a baby step in the right direction.
And with Bozak out the next little while (more on his status below), Kadri will have a solid opportunity to prove his worth alongside the Leafs two first line wingers.
“Nazzie played hard,” said Carlyle of Kadri, who also had four shots and four hits.
The Leafs left Friday's game in Columbus as the second-worst faceoff team in the NHL. A night later they topped a Penguins squad that entered the night as second-best overall, winning 53 per cent of the draws.
Without Bozak, the team's most trusted faceoff man, the Leafs turned most prominently to Bolland, who struggled badly against the Blue Jackets one night earlier (3-15). Finishing 17 of 31 against the Penguins, Bolland topped Crosby on 12 of 22 draws.
“We've been off a couple games so that's big, starting with the puck and not just giving it to them,” Gunnarsson said.
Jay McClement was tops on the night, winning 12 of 19 for a 63 per cent mark.
4. Clarkson's Power-Play Opportunity
David Clarkson was a first unit power-play contributor during his final two seasons with the Devils. The 29-year-old averaged 3:03 per game on the man advantage two years ago, tallying eight goals and 16 points. Last season, he saw that opportunity rise to 3:33 per game with totals of six goals and eight points.
But in spite of the considerable expectations he brings to Toronto, Clarkson is unlikely to garner the same quantity of opportunity with the Leafs.
Kessel, van Riemsdyk and Bozak typically man the top power-play group and save for injury, are likely to remain together. Carlyle kept the trio aligned all of last season and once again this season. That leaves Clarkson with fewer minutes on a second unit, likely to include Kadri and Joffrey Lupul when healthy.
Worth monitoring is the level of opportunity he manages moving forward and how that affects his overall production.
Teamed with Kadri and Mason Raymond on Saturday, Clarkson garnered two minutes on the man advantage against the Penguins.
5. Bigger Minutes
By the final month of last season, Cody Franson was averaging nearly 22 minutes nightly for the Leafs, up considerably from the 13-plus he garnered just months earlier in January. Picking up right where he left off, the 26-year-old is drawing the second most minutes on the Toronto defence so far this season.
“I'm enjoying it,” he said of the opportunity, remaining at what would be a career-high of 22 minutes per night. “This is what I've tried to work towards my whole career is being a guy that they lean on.”
Of the differences heavier minutes require, Franson listed the personnel he's charged with facing – Malkin on Saturday – among other things.
“It's just a matter of trying to be physical for 22 minutes rather than 13,” he said. “It takes a little more out of you, but that's what we train through the summers for is to be ready for that. You have to be very focused going into games knowing that you're going to go up against guys like Malkin and Crosby and those talents. There's a lot of different factors that play into it, but that's what we work for. I'm happy that I'm able to do that and I'm looking forward to doing it more.”
After leading the team in ice time against Columbus, Franson actually had the fewest minutes of his season against Pittsburgh. He played just under 17, mostly opposite the Malkin line.
Bonus Point – Injury Updates
Already down Nikolai Kulemin, Mark Fraser and Joffrey Lupul, the Leafs were without Tyler Bozak against the Penguins. The 27-year-old suffered a lower body injury against the Blue Jackets and will miss at least the next 7-10 days.
Trying to determine if the injury to Joffrey Lupul was more serious than suspected – he has missed the past two games with a bone bruise on the right foot – the Leafs sent the 30-year-old for a CT scan on Saturday. The results came back clean with no fracture. Lupul will make the trip out west and could be available to play when the Leafs visit his hometown of Edmonton on Tuesday.
Kulemin (right ankle) and Fraser (left knee) continue to skate – both have missed the past 10 games – with early November as the soft target time-frame for return. Both are expected to make the trip out west.
4-0-2 – Career record for James Reimer versus Pittsburgh.
10:04 – Minutes for Colton Orr on Saturday.
19:46 – Minutes for Nazem Kadri on Saturday.
6 – Number of times the Leafs have come from behind to win this season.
53 – Faceoff percentage against Pittsburgh.
7 – Hits for David Clarkson.
7 - Goals for Phil Kessel in 12 games this season.
Special Teams Capsule
Quote of the Night
“Not many guys can go in and make that play that he made to score the goal.”
¬ Randy Carlyle on the game-winning goal from Nazem Kadri.
The Leafs depart on a three-game swing to Western Canada, landing in Edmonton on Tuesday night.