TAMPA – Survival continues for the Maple Leafs without James Reimer.
Winning for the eighth time in sixteen games without their number one netminder (8-7-1), the Leafs rolled over the Lightning by a 7-1 final at the St. Pete Times Forum on Tuesday night. Tyler Bozak scored twice, Tim Connolly had three points, Joe Colborne scored his first NHL goal and Jonas Gustavsson made 27 saves in a throttling of the Bolts which saw Dwayne Roloson chased after six goals on 21 shots.
"This is a weird game tonight," said Clarke MacArthur, who scored on the opening shift. "You look up and you can't even believe it's 7-1. They had some good chances and they played hard. It was just one of those nights where everything goes our way."
One might have safely assumed a gradual, if not rapid, downward descent when Reimer first went down in Montreal on October 22nd, but with terrific play from Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, improving special teams, the odd night of steady goaltending and growing contributions from young players, the Leafs have managed to stay safely afloat, sitting second in the Eastern Conference with 26 points (12-8-2).
Reimer addressed the media before the game for the first time in nearly a month, revealing the depths of his battle with "concussion-like symptoms" and his hope to return soon. In addition to the 23-year-old, the Leafs are also missing their second-line centre (Mikhail Grabovski), two third-line wingers (Colby Armstrong and Matthew Lombardi), their best fourth-liner (Mike Brown) and an improving presence on the blue-line (Mike Komisarek).They are also currently the youngest team in the NHL with an average age of 26.4.
Adding two more goals on Tuesday, the Leaf powerplay jumped to third-best in the NHL (22.6 percent). Over the last seven games, the man advantage is sizzling with 10 goals on 23 opportunities (44 percent). "I think we finally got everybody on the same page," said Ron Wilson, following the game. "We're not improvising when we get in the zone. We're moving the puck and distributing it. Different guys are scoring too. It's not relying on Phil or anybody. And tonight to get the second unit to score a goal which they hadn't really scored a goal in a month on the powerplay – that really helped us too."
Connolly was the first forward other than Kessel, Lupul or Bozak to score on the man advantage since MacArthur deposited a goal in Ottawa on October 30.
The penalty-kill was also steady once again, stopping the Lightning on five of their six opportunities. Over the last ten games, the Leafs have killed off 32 of 37 opportunities (87 percent), but still sit 27th overall (76.7 percent).
Bozak continues to click with Kessel and Lupul on the first line. The 25-year-old now has nine points in the last seven games, also improving to a plus-4 rating in the win. Last season, he finished with a minus-29 rating, among the worst in the NHL. "I wasn't happy with the way last year finished," he said. "The plus/minus was a huge thing that I worried about so I just wanted to focus on my defensive game, try not to cheat and hopefully the offence came from good defence."
The third-year centre remains with Kessel and Lupul despite Connolly returning to the lineup four games prior. With Mikhail Grabovski out, but perhaps in line for a return in a week or so, the Leafs centre situation is suddenly rather intriguing. "He's skating really hard right now and probably a sense of desperation or urgency in his game," said Wilson. "Last year, no matter how he played he was going to be in the lineup – we weren't very deep. He knows Grabo's only a week [from return] if that much and he's competing as hard as he can to stay on that line."
Connolly continues to show pop when healthy. He clicked for a goal and two assists alongside MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin, giving him 10 points in 10 games. "Timmy Connolly seems to be able to play with anybody and make them better," noted Wilson. MacArthur returned to the lineup after missing the previous three games with an upper-body injury. Both former Sabres, he and Connolly played together on a line with Jason Pominville in Buffalo. "He's a great player," said MacArthur. "You want to just move your feet when you're playing with him and he gets you the puck."
Colborne notched his first NHL marker in just his fourth NHL game. The 21-year-old cleaned up a Matt Frattin drive to the net, putting one past the 42-year-old Roloson. "I'm going to be telling people it happened a lot different in a few years," he joked. "I'll take anything I can get."
"Joe Colborne's going to be a pretty good player in this league," said Wilson. "We're starting to see he's a little bit stronger in skating, he's more ready than he was at training camp."
"I've continually been working on it," said Colborne of his skating. "Our skating coach (Graeme Townshend) here has been helping me out some. It's just also getting used to the speed of the game mentally and I think that helps you. I'm feeling a lot more comfortable now than I was during camp even. It also comes with some confidence I gained while being down with the Marlies too."
The Calgary native played alongside current linemates Matt Frattin and Joey Crabb while with the Marlies.
Gustavsson was strong for a second consecutive outing. Only moments after MacArthur opened the scoring the 26-year-old robbed Vincent Lecavalier, sliding left to right after a cross-ice feed from an onrushing Marty St. Louis. "Monster did a great job," said MacArthur. "Real confident in there; that's what our team needs. Good job by him."
"He was efficient tonight," said Wilson. "He didn't have to make too many really big saves and pucks were hitting him right in the chest so his positioning was really good tonight."
Gustavsson made 40 saves in a victory over Washington on Saturday.