SUNRISE, Florida – What was most important to the Leafs as they left the BB&T Center on Thursday evening was the two points and two points alone, a needed "bounce-back" performance following a disheartening effort in Tampa just a night earlier.
"We didn't feel we played our best [Wednesday] night so we wanted to come in here and make a statement for ourselves," said James Reimer, following his fourth shutout of the year, a 4-0 victory over the league-worst Florida Panthers. "We know in here how we need to play and the standard and the level we need to be at. That's what we wanted to do today, get right back on track and we were able to do that."
While any opportunity at home-ice advantage fell by the wayside – Montreal and Boston both emerged victorious on Thursday night – the Leafs did assure themselves of finishing no lower than sixth in the Eastern Conference with their 13th road victory – they sit fifth currently – their division rivals in Ottawa the only remaining threat.
The win, no matter the lowliness of opponent, was needed. Mired in a mini-funk of three losses in four games – which had seen them yield five goals three times – Thursday was a game the Leafs had to have, if only to erase mounting concerns with the playoffs drawing near. And while the effort opposite the seemingly flatlined Panthers was hardly dominant – one shot in the third period was proof of that – there was enough in it to offer a few positive vibes before Saturday's regular season finale with Montreal.
Playing their final regular season road game of the year, the Leafs scored a pair in the opening frame – Clarke MacArthur notably ending a lengthy dry spell (more below) – before adding two more from Phil Kessel in the second, all the offence and more to spell Reimer, who stopped all 34 Florida shots.
Randy Carlyle challenged his group to ratchet up the physical intensity against the Panthers – after a quiet night in Tampa – 45 hits the desired response.
Shuffling the deck of his lineup yet again, Carlyle reinserted John-Michael Liles and Colton Orr, while replacing the nicked-up Tyler Bozak with Nazem Kadri on the top line. Asked if he had an idea of how his playoff lineup would shake out with one game to go, Carlyle replied in the negative before adding, "There's some things that have been set in stone, I don't think you're going to see us veer too far away from that."
There will be no questions in goal. Reimer continued what's been an eye-opening season, now 19-7-5 on the year with a hotshot .938 save percentage in April.
1. Kessel's dominance
Scorching in the month of April, Phil Kessel added his team-leading 18th and 19th goals to the resume against the Panthers. The 25-year-old has tallied nine markers in the past nine games and has a sizzling 17 points in 11 games this month. Kessel is tied for sixth in league scoring with 51 points, including 47 in the past 38 games.
Without Bozak for the first time this season – he was on a maintenance day – the Leafs leading scorer was joined on the top unit by Kadri and former running mate Joffrey Lupul. Breaking free for an odd-man opportunity early in the second, Kessel took a lofting feed from Kadri for the third Leafs goal, adding his second shortly after, again on a feed from his 22-year-old teammate. "They did okay," Carlyle said blandly of the trio. "They were okay."
While it was only a single game and they had only mild sparks, the combination of Kessel and Kadri did offer a potential preview for the organization, a possible construction of the lineup (at centre) if Bozak were to depart via free agency this summer. "I've always wanted to play with Phil," said Kadri, who took a pair of stealth shots to the face in a dust-up with Alex Petrovic late in the second. "I want to make myself better by playing with those types of guys."
2. MacArthur breaks drought
It was the third longest drought of MacArthur's career, a 15-game spell without a goal that finally came to an end on Thursday night. "That hopefully is a sign of things to come," Carlyle said of MacArthur, who now has eight goals this season. "He was engaged in the hockey game, on the body, hard to play against and all those things." MacArthur hadn't scored since March 9, showing signs of breaking through from his funk just a night earlier against Tampa. "It's nice," he said of ending the drought, banging a rebound past Jacob Markstrom in the first. "Changes the whole aspect of everything for me." Looking to trend upward as his first playoffs in Toronto draw near, MacArthur erased the spell before it reached career lows. Back in the 2008-09 season, the 28-year-old had droughts of 17 and 20 games.
3. Lupul's evaluation process
While he managed his third goal in as many games a night earlier in Tampa, Lupul conceded to TSN.ca recently that "I'm probably not playing quite as well as I would like, but I'm still confident I can play better down the stretch here for us." Now in his ninth NHL season, Lupul has a method for boosting himself out of such situations, a defined evaluation process for his performance. "I try not to do it based on statistics because sometimes they're there sometimes they're not," Lupul explained, adding an assist against the Panthers to extend a modest four-game point streak. "I just evaluate my play [based on] what I'm doing for the team, what I'm doing to help us win games. I think that's a better way to look at it than say 'Oh I got two goals this game' but really I was just right place, right time."
Often difficult to pinpoint for a player in midst of game action, the 29-year-old looks to video for the purposes of identifying the good and bad in his performance. He has clearly defined what makes him successful. "I think when I'm playing really well I want the puck and I'll skate the extra little bit to put myself in a position to get that pass or win that race to the puck," he explained, detailing the positives, a seven-game run of 14 points recently one such example. "And for me if things aren't going well the two things I always look at is playing physical – getting hits – and going to the net. And then usually if I start doing those two things the rest of my game and natural ability will eventually take over." This is not a process Lupul learned overnight, but one that took "years to figure out". What such a meticulous approach prevents is "those 10, 12-game funks. You have a couple bad games and then just clear it and say 'okay today I'm going to focus on skating, finishing checks, going to the net. Once I do those two things hopefully everything else follows.
"Obviously I have some other skills and capabilities that make me successful in the long-term but I think if there's something I get away from it can be those two things."
4. Franson's breakout year
Nestled unexpectedly amongst the likes of Ryan Suter, PK Subban, Niklas Kronwall, Kris Letang, Dion Phaneuf and Andrei Markov sits Cody Franson, tied for sixth among all NHL defenders in points with 28 this season. The 26-year-old has quite simply taken the leap the organization hoped he might when they swung a trade with Nashville in the summer of 2011. "My goal going into this season was just to show that I could be more than I was last year," he said, referring to his first season in Toronto, during which he played just 57 games. "I felt I had a lot more to offer and I just wanted to make sure I tried to display that as much as possible and try and be a more important piece of the team." Franson has in fact, become a "more important piece of the team", no better example of that than his ice-time, which has spiked dramatically from under 14 minutes per game in January to upwards of 21 in April. "Last year was the toughest year I've had by far and I wanted to improve immensely upon it and show that I had a lot more to offer," he concluded, leading the Leafs with over 25 minutes against the Panthers.
5. Searching for Grabovski
With just a single goal and assist in the past 14 games, Mikhail Grabovski is still nowhere near where he would like to be as his first career postseason approaches. "Still a bit frustrated," he told TSN.ca, "[but] can improve myself before the playoffs." The 29-year-old has just nine goals and 16 points on the year, but more revealingly of his quiet production recently, has attempted one shot or fewer of eight of 11 games in April, including a zero on Thursday night. "I can play better," he said, noting the need to shoot the puck more while going stronger to the net. "Work harder on the ice." Grabovski has, not surprisingly, seen his role gradually shrink this season; from an average of 17-plus minutes in January down to fewer than 14 minutes this month.
Quote of the Night
"I didn't even realize we were going to go at it until he punched me square in the face."
-Nazem Kadri on his second period scrum with Alex Petrovic.
15 games: Clarke MacArthur ended a season-long goal drought with his eighth goal this season and first since March 9.
17: Points for Phil Kessel in 11 games this month. Kessel has nine goals and eight assists in that span.
2: Assists for Nazem Kadri, his first multi-point outing since March 30.
4: Shutouts for James Reimer this season, tied for second among NHL goaltenders.
.938: Save percentage for Reimer in April.
45: Hits against the Panthers.
25:43: Cody Franson. After losing both Mark Fraser and Dion Phaneuf to game misconducts, the Leafs were down to just four defencemen by the final stages of the third frame, with Franson assuming the bulk of minutes.
The Leafs conclude the regular season on Saturday, hosting the Montreal Canadiens at the Air Canada Centre.