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Siegel: Reimer's brilliance backstops Leafs victory

Jonas Siegel, TSN.ca
11/24/2013 1:21:01 AM
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TORONTO – It became clear pretty quickly that James Reimer was at the top of his game yet again at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday evening.

"I'm not sure how many people were here tonight, maybe 20,000, I think they could all tell," said Morgan Rielly, following the 2-1 shootout victory. "The guy's on his game."

Reimer stopped 49 of 50 Washington shots in regulation, with Alex Ovechkin being the lone Capital scorer. He would then stop three of four in the shootout. The 25-year-old now leads the NHL with a sparkling .947 save percentage this season, stealing victory for his club once more on this night.

"When you get into situations like tonight, it was one where we needed the save and he continued to make them," said Randy Carlyle of Reimer, who remains a perfect 4-0-0 at home this season.

"What can you say?" said Rielly, "the guy was unbelievable.

"I think the whole team is just playing a lot more comfortable and playing with a lot of confidence because he's back there and he's kicking and he's playing great. He's unbelievable."

Reimer turned shot after shot aside amid a Capitals onslaught that picked up steam at the outset of the second period. With a pair of power plays to start the frame, Washington managed to fire 10 shots unanswered at Reimer, none of which eluded the Leafs netminder.

Only an Ovechkin rifle with less than five minutes to go in the third period found the back of the net.

"Obviously it's piling up a bit," said Reimer of the one-sided shot clock, "but honestly it was more of them just throwing pucks to the net from everywhere."

Wholly impressive last season when he posted the league's seventh-best save percentage, Reimer appears to be even better at the outset this season, looming as one half of the Leafs dominant netminding duo.

"I feel like I'm the best I am in my career," said Reimer, asked if this was the best stretch of his career. "The best I've played? I don't know. I think in the playoffs last year I felt like I was playing well every game there, too.

"I feel good about how I'm playing right now and I think I'm the best I've ever been, but the best I've ever played? I don't know how to answer that."

Five Points

1. Ovechkin's Brilliance

Alex Ovechkin entered the ACC with a league-leading 19 goals, including eight on the power play. He'd scored at least once for the Capitals in 14 of 21 games. His career numbers against the Leafs were devastating: 25 goals and 46 points in 30 games.

And though he was kept quiet for the better part of the evening, the Washington captain managed to stun the home crowd late with his 20th goal this season.

Tracking a lofting pass from Mike Green into the offensive zone, Ovechkin snapped a laser beyond Reimer.

Cody Franson explained what made the three-time Hart Trophy winner so unique.

"He kind of picks his spots a little bit," Franson told the Leaf Report prior to the game. "You see him just watching the game, watching the game, and then he'll see something develop and he'll just explode. He's one of those guys that has that gift to be able to see something happen before it does. With his skill-set he's able to jump into those holes very quickly and make those tough plays in tight areas that allow offensive scoring chances to happen."

Asked where Ovechkin, who won his third Hart Trophy last season, sat amongst the league's elite, Franson said, "Top of the list. He's in there with Crosby, Malkin and all those guys. He's evidently one of the top guys in the league. All those guys that are in that top class you can argue who's better at what, but he's definitely in that mix."

2. Finding a Comfort Zone

David Clarkson hit the score-sheet for the fourth time in the past five games, scoring the lone Leaf goal in the opening period. Parked in front of Braden Holtby on a Toronto power play, Clarkson redirected a Jake Gardiner point shot for his second goal this season.

Now 13 games into his career with the Leafs – he missed the first 10 games due to suspension – Clarkson is beginning to feel at home.

"I'm starting to feel more comfortable, 100 per cent," said Clarkson, especially effective alongside Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul in the first frame. "Starting to feel better, like myself. But when you're behind the eight-ball or when you're coming into a new situation it's always tough."

While acknowledging the player's improvement in recent days, Carlyle said he'd like to see Clarkson limit some of the on-ice antics, which included a feisty back-and-forth with the Capitals.

"I think that's part of his make-up," said Carlyle, "but I'd like to see that toned down. I don't think we need that with our group. We have enough fuel to give the officials opportunity to put us in the box so let's not enhance that."

3. Point Shots

James van Riemsdyk scored a pair of goals against Buffalo last week when he parked himself in front of Jhonas Enroth and redirected a pair of Cody Franson point shots. Clarkson's goal, as noted, came off a similar attempt from Gardiner, who simply flung the puck at the crease of Holtby.

It's something Carlyle would like to see more of from his defence and group as a whole.

"We've been preaching and we've been pleading with our players, just direct pucks toward the net and drive the middle lane," Carlyle said. "We're far, far too cute. We just refuse continually to direct pucks and we're not getting that second and third opportunity, that flurry of shots. And the opposition that we play against are doing it to us. They take one shot on net and they get two or three whacks at it where we seemed to be one and out. We're very selective on when we want to shoot the puck. We've got to simplify, put the pucks toward the net. I would say we have some thick heads."

4. The Ovechkin Strategy

Just as he did with success against John Tavares earlier in the week, Carlyle employed the trio of Jay McClement, Nikolai Kulemin and Mason Raymond – in addition to the top pair of Carl Gunnarsson and Dion Phaneuf – opposite Ovechkin and the Capitals top line.

Most interesting in the Toronto strategy was their approach in defending the Capitals captain on the power play. Shadowing Ovechkin, the Leafs were content to allow one-time after one-time from John Carlson in the middle of the ice. Carlson fired seven shots on goal, including five on the man advantage.

"It didn't look very good, but consciously we felt it would be more of an advantage for us to let our goalie see the one-time shot from the other players other than Ovechkin," Carlyle said. "You see what he can do with it."

Yielding a pair of power play goals to Nashville two nights earlier, the Leaf penalty kill ultimately bounced back with a perfect 3-for-3 effort against Washington. The Caps entered the night with the league's second-ranked power play.

5. Grabovski's Return

Mikhail Grabovski was quiet in his return to the ACC on Saturday.

The 29-year-old made most of his noise in scary fashion during the middle frame. Looking to keep a puck in near the Toronto blue-line, Grabovski fell to the ice, his face then sliced by the skate of Clarkson. Bloodied and down on the ice, he departed for the Washington dressing room as soon as play was whistled down, returning for the second period with 20 stitches in two separate places.

"I'm really happy to be here," said Grabovski prior to the game. "I'm happy to be around my friends who love me before and I love them, family, friends. Like home ice, my old home ice. I'm just very excited and very happy."

Grabovski finished with two shots in 16 minutes.

Bonus Point – Sharp on the Draw

Added to the roster amid growing trouble at centre ice, Jerred Smithson has proven valuable for the Leafs, particularly in the faceoff circle. In just eight games, Smithson has already taken 134 draws, now up to 61.2 per cent on the season.

The 34-year-old has, in Tyler Bozak's absence, assumed the bulk of key defensive zone faceoffs, be it at even-strength or on the penalty kill.

Date

Opponent

Percentage

Total

Nov. 8

NJ

89%

8-9

Nov. 9

BOS

50%

9-18

Nov. 13

MIN

53%

16-30

Nov. 15

BUF

49%

11-23

Nov. 16

BUF

47%

8-17

Nov. 19

NYI

81%

13-16

Nov. 21

NAS

89%

8-9

Nov. 23

WAS

75%

9-12

Bozak missed his 12th consecutive game against the Capitals on Saturday. The 27-year-old is still recovering from a hamstring injury which has kept him out since Oct. 25.

"We're surprised that he's not available to us," said Carlyle prior to the game. "We fully counted on him being able to play..."

Stat-Pack

.947 – Save percentage for James Reimer, tops in the NHL.

4 – Points in the past five games for David Clarkson, who scored his second goal this season against the Capitals.

62% – Leafs on the draw against the Capitals.

134 – Face-offs for Jerred Smithson in eight games as a Leaf.

10 – Shots for Washington on three power plays.

9-3-0 – Home record for the Leafs this season.

23:02 – Ice-time for Jake Gardiner against the Capitals, including 22:05 at even-strength.

Special Teams Capsule

PP: 1-1

Season: 24.7%

PK: 3-3

Season: 83%

Quote of the Night

"No [expletive]."

- Randy Carlyle, reminded that Mikhail Grabovski had some unflattering things to say upon his exit from Toronto.

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