NEWARK, N.J. – Two essential performances were required for the Leafs to survive victory in Jersey.
There was another seal-proof effort from the league's third-ranked penalty kill and a near-perfect 27-save performance from James Reimer. The prominent combination of the two allowed for one very close 2-1 win over the Devils, a needed rebound from a punch-less effort two nights earlier in a home loss to the Flyers.
“I think it's a responsibility that we try to accept how we play,” Randy Carlyle said of his team's ability to bounce back from Thursday's loss. “We thought off our performance the other night that we needed a rebound game; that we had to rebound and get our work ethic back up, get our sharpness back up because we were playing pretty sound hockey in the previous games … We accepted that responsibility as a team to say ‘Hey we have to have a rebound game here tonight'.”
Bested only by the likes of Boston and Ottawa, the Toronto penalty kill was perfect in all five chances on Saturday evening – yielding exactly one shot against – now at 86.7 percent for the season and 92 percent over the past 27 games.
“I know at least when I step out on the ice I feel good [that] we're going to shut them down,” Carl Gunnarsson said afterward, his blocked shot in the final seconds preserving victory. “It's going to take a lot of hard work, a couple blocked shots, some bruises, but I think the guys that are out there are willing to take that to shut it down.
“It works for us and in the case like tonight it wins us games too.”
The unit performed its most stirring work in the opening frame, erasing a 5-on-3 advantage that lasted over a minute, not a single shot finding its way to Reimer. Another similar effort was summoned in the final minute of regulation with the Devils securing a late 6-on-4 advantage, the critical final shot attempt from Patrik Elias blocked by Gunnarsson with 13 seconds to go.
David Clarkson meanwhile, was the lone Devil to beat the 25-year-old in goal, a breakaway squeaker finding an opening five-hole. Reimer proved a sturdy wall otherwise, now with a record of 14-5-4 this season. The two points earned in victory catapulted the Leafs into fifth in the Eastern Conference, now seven points up on New Jersey in ninth with a mere 10 games to play.
1. Needed shorthanded adjustments
With the seamless 5-5 effort opposite the Devils, the Leaf penalty kill has now erased 81 of 88 opportunities over a lengthy 27-game stretch. Still, there were areas of refinement that the coaching staff – lead penalty kill coach Scott Gordon in particular – had zeroed in on for improvement, improvements that were addressed at Friday's practice in Toronto.
“Just things we were doing all season that we were getting away from, just little things,” said Jay McClement, who led all Leaf forwards with over four minutes of shorthanded ice-time against the Devils. “There was a trend with the stats that we were giving up more quality chances than we had been for the rest of the year.”
Offering one such focus for improvement, McClement explained that, “We didn't have the speed we want coming back into our zone from our first forward; it enables our defencemen to stand up [at the blue-line]…”
Gunnarsson added one additional needed improvement, noting the ability for recovery when “something goes wrong”. “I think we're doing a better job of that,” he said. “You know stuff is going to go wrong, maybe you can't clear the puck, a guy loses his stick, whatever happens, [but] I think we're doing a great job of the three other guys that are out there [covering] for that guy whatever happens.”
The Leafs allowed at least one power-play goal in seven of the first 10 games this season, nearly unbeatable since that point in early February. “When we started it was a little rough just because none of us had played together,” McClement said. “That's probably the biggest part is everyone knowing what the other guy's going to do in reads and obviously our goaltending again tonight, [Reimer] made some huge saves.”
2. Reimer's role on the PK
Only one stop was actually required from Reimer on Saturday when the Leafs were shorthanded, but his performance in such situations this season has been rock-solid. Reimer boasts an .893 save percentage when his team is shorthanded this season, tied for third amongst goaltenders with at least 20 starts. His percentage on the penalty kill a year ago was .808, right in line with what was then the league's third-worst penalty kill.
3. ‘Fight like a banshee' in goal
Reimer improved to 2-0-0 versus New Jersey this season and afterward explained his frame of mind when facing an organized group like the Devils.
“They're well-coached and they do things pretty scheduled or routinely,” he said. “They obviously get a lot of point shots or outside shots but tons of traffic and tons of tips and so you know as a goalie going in you have to get to your angle and be big and fight like a banshee to try and see the puck. All the really good and well-coached teams they always have a guy in front; Philly, these guys, New York, Detroit, all those teams you have to fight to see the puck.”
4. Leafs Without Lupul
The Leafs were without Joffrey Lupul for the 28th times this season on Saturday, improving to 15-11-2 in those games. Crunched by the Flyers combination of Jay Rosehill and Adam Hall on Thursday, Lupul did not make the trip to New Jersey, but did endure another round of tests on Saturday morning.
“As far as the morning goes everything was pretty much back to normal for him,” said Carlyle of the 29-year-old, “little bit of stiffness in his neck, [but] hopefully he'll skate [Sunday].” Out with an as yet unclear “upper-body” injury, Lupul had amassed eight goals and six assists before wobbling out of the eventual loss to Philadelphia.
5. Colborne's season debut, inspired turnaround
Among the battery of changes to the Leafs lineup on Saturday – Clarke MacArthur, Leo Komarov and Jake Gardiner also figured into the equation – Joe Colborne made his season debut against the Devils, logging just under six minutes on a fourth unit with Ryan Hamilton and Colton Orr. Colborne had a stunted start offensively this year with the Marlies, totaling just two goals and 10 points in the first 28 games. But the 23-year-old had emerged in recent months with 12 goals and 32 points in 37 games before being recalled to the Leafs.
“I think just being healthy is a big one,” he said, asked what had inspired the drastic change. Colborne had undergone wrist surgery in the offseason, an injury that lingered throughout the 2011-2012 campaign. “I might've tried to rush back a little with my wrist,” he said of this past fall, “but it's a pretty big surgery that they did and you've got to give it time to heal. They kept telling me ‘take your time, take your time' but that's not really in my blood so I was trying to rush everything. About Christmas time it started feeling really good and with that you get confidence and it just starts snowballing in the right direction.”
Quote of the Night
“I know at least when I step out on the ice I feel good [that] we're going to shut them down. It's going to take a lot of hard work, a couple blocked shots, some bruises, but I think the guys that are out there are willing to take that to shut it down.”
-Carl Gunnarsson on confidence in the Leafs penalty kill.
6-2-2: Record with Joffrey Lupul this season.
15-11-2: Record without Joffrey Lupul this season.
3: Game-winners for Tyler Bozak on the year, including the knuckler on a breakaway against Martin Brodeur on Saturday night.
81-88: Penalty kill over the past 27 games.
1: Shot for the Devils on five power-play opportunities.
9: Games without a goal for Phil Kessel, stuck on 10 this season.
16:27: Jake Gardiner, returning to the lineup following a three-game stint in the press box.
The Leafs return home to face the Rangers on Monday for the first half of a home-and-home set.