NEW YORK – It was the second of two from Tyler Bozak and an overtime marker that saved the Leafs from complete disaster in the Big Apple, a three-game losing streak emphatically put to bed.
Generally speaking, it was more of the same from a one-line wrecking machine which has carried the Leafs offensively all season, but especially since the calendar turned to 2014. Toronto's top line of Bozak, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk has now combined for 35 goals in the new year or 10 more than the rest of the forwards combined in that span and a staggering 49 per cent of the team's total offence.
Secondary scoring from the likes of Joffrey Lupul, Nazem Kadri and Mason Raymond has been spotty. Kadri snapped a six-game skid with his 16th of the year against the Rangers, depositing a Nik Kulemin rebound beyond the grasp of Henrik Lundqvist. Two days earlier, Raymond scored the lone goal in a 2-1 loss to Columbus, then the third-straight for the Leafs.
Such contributions, though, have been the exception rather than the norm in recent months with the top unit terrorizing opponents nightly. Kessel is on pace for 90 points and trails only Sidney Crosby in the scoring race. van Riemsdyk has smashed almost every previous career-high, already boasting 26 goals and 52 points. And Bozak, the most maligned first-line centre in the league, has managed 37 points in 40 games this season, including 23 in the past 23 games.
"I think at the start of the year, we thought one of our strengths would probably be our balanced attack," Lupul told the Leaf Report before Wednesday's 3-2 overtime victory, "and it hasn't really been that for a number of different reasons, injury probably the first one you look to."
Dave Bolland has missed almost the entire year, David Clarkson has offered little offensively and Kulemin only shows hints here and there of the offensive prowess that scored 30 goals only three seasons ago. It's been the second unit though, cemented by Kadri and Lupul, that's just been off somewhat, rarely running in concert with the Kessel-led trio.
"We haven't really had that game," said Lupul, "the breakout game where you score two or three or four goals."
Though he remains on pace for a still respectable 24 goals and 48 points, the 30-year-old has just four goals in the past 19 games. He had a terrific chance to beat Lundqvist on a backhand rebound attempt in the second, only to be stymied by the right pad. His emergence down the stretch alongside Kadri would certainly stand to benefit the Leafs' attack.
"For me, usually that's what I look at is scoring chances because eventually they'll go in for me," said Lupul, who has felt better physically since the Olympic stoppage, the extended layoff offering opportunity to heal some nagging concerns.
"I've played long enough that I can self-evaluate and at the end of the game I know when I played a good game or a bad game for the most part. Right now, I'm happy with my game to a point. Sometimes you've got to find a way to put the puck in the back of the net, especially when your team's down by one. But I feel good right now and I feel like we're on the verge of having one of those games where we break out and score three or four goals."
Lupul also stressed his belief that the eventual return of Bolland, who missed his 49th-straight game Wednesday, will aid in attempts for greater balance.
"Obviously, there's a little bit of excitement to finally play a game where we have everyone and see how the team looks with Bozak, Kadri, Bolland, McClement and then all of our wingers," said Lupul. "That's an exciting prospect for us to finally suit up that full lineup. And I think you'll see, once we do that, the balanced attack will come a little bit. I mean, having Bolland centring your third line it makes a big difference."
Goal-scoring has never been an issue for the Leafs this season. They remain one of the league's highest-scoring teams, almost entirely because of the top line's dominance (and a productive, until recently, power play). But if that trio slows even a little down the stretch – shooting percentages tend fluctuate – and beyond that in the playoffs, the lack of balance could emerge as a real concern.
1. Messy Third Periods
For the third time in four games after the Olympic break the Leafs dropped a third period lead, blowing a 2-0 deficit in stunning fashion against the Rangers.
Dealt an opportunity to bury the home side early in the final frame with Brad Richards hauled off for tripping, Toronto managed to yield a pair of shorthanded goals in just over a minute. Giveaways by Cody Franson and then Kessel allowed Ryan McDonagh and Dominic Moore to strike and reignite a seemingly dead Madison Square Garden crowd.
"That's just unacceptable from our power-play group," said Kadri afterward. "We know that."
It was, rather incredibly, the second time in less than a week that the club had allowed two shorthanded goals on the same power play. More concerning though was another evaporated third period lead.
The Leafs carried such leads in Long Island and Montreal in recent days, only to fumble them away and eventually lose in overtime. Valuable points were lost in the process.
Because they ended up taking the second point anyway in overtime – still handing one to New York – the Leafs jumped the idle Lightning for third in the Atlantic Division.
"We've got to look at it as two points that are huge right now," said head coach Randy Carlyle. "It doesn't feel so good right now because you're frustrated with the way it went, but tomorrow in the standings, it'll show two points and then you move on."
2. Bolland's Cloudy Status
Lupul compared Bolland's looming addition (more on that below) to a trade.
"It was almost the same for me last year. I had the broken arm and came back and was able to add a little spark to the team," said Lupul, who had 18 points in 13 games upon return from the injury last spring. "I would expect Bolland to kind of do the same thing. It doesn't necessarily have to be with goals or assists, but just what he brings on a night to night basis. We've certainly missed it. You're putting in a guy with playoff experience; that is kind of the exact thing that you look to add at the trade deadline."
Bolland's return from a severed left ankle tendon has taken longer than expected and remains cloudy at best. He described the rehab process himself recently as a "slow mountain climb," one that has seen him out of the lineup since Nov. 2.
The 27-year-old neared a return last week but suffered a setback and has since visited with a specialist in Carolina, who advised that the process continue moving forward.
Uncertainty remains on when exactly he'll be back with just 18 games remaining.
3. Trade Deadline Comes and Goes Quietly
The Leafs ultimately remained quiet at Wednesday's trade deadline.
Not yet a Cup contender in need of just a piece or two to get over the top, but not a bottom dweller selling assets either (as they were in years' past) Nonis and his management team decided just to stand pat.
"I think it's easy to try to get caught up in what might be an exciting move, what may help you for a couple weeks," Nonis told reporters in Toronto. "It's easy to get caught up in that. [But] I don't think it's a prudent way of approaching this day. At least, not until we have more assets to give. When you can give up first-round picks or you can give up top young players and not feel it, then you're ready to make those deals."
Nonis made clear that their side was primarily interested in hockey deals at the deadline with rentals not aligning with the team's current state (they're not ready to win). Selling pending UFAs (Raymond, Kulemin and McClement) additionally for minimal assets also didn't make much sense as they'd damage the team in the interim without yielding much in the way of worthwhile return.
In the upswing from where they've been as an organization in the past, the Leafs are, nonetheless, kind of in the middle at the moment. Good, but not great. A playoff team not quite worthy of Cup contention. And thus, remaining quiet rather than chasing an unrealistic dream was probably most logical.
4. Trade Deadline II
As they ambled off the ice at MSG on Wednesday morning, Bozak and Raymond poked fun at the trade deadline frenzy. "Neuf to the Flyers," Raymond chirped. "Is it done?" Bozak responded, "I heard it's a done deal."
Dion Phaneuf had been absent from the morning skate, taking the morning off for maintenance. Such is the hysteria associated with the annual deadline and why it's typically a nervous day for most players.
"I don't think there's been a time where I've been super nervous," Franson said before the 3pm deadline was to expire. "For a guy in my situation, I don't have a no-trade clause or anything like that, so whatever happens it's going to happen and there's nothing I can do about it. You're always kind of on the edge of your seat just to see if your name pops up on the ticker or whatever. Your life can change in a second. That's always a little nerve-wracking. As far as really stressing about it, it's not in your hands."
5. Trade Deadline III
Carlyle recalled a messier trade deadline following Wednesday's game. While an assistant coach in Washington during the 2003-2004 season, he watched in horror as the Capitals shipped out the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Robert Lang, Sergei Gonchar and Michael Nylander in the lead-up to the Mar. 9 deadline.
"And that wasn't a lot of fun," he said.
Among the rewards in those trades were Tomas Fleischmann, Brooks Laich, Mike Green and a team that was bad enough to snatch the first overall selection in the '04 draft, one that yielded Alex Ovechkin.
49 – Percentage of offence in 2014 from the top line of Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak.
35-25 – Combined goals for Kessel, van Riemsdyk and Bozak in the New Year versus those from the rest of the Toronto forwards in that same span.
1-1-1 – Leafs' record versus the Rangers this season.
0-15 – Toronto power-play over the past seven games.
23 – Points in the past 23 games for Bozak, who scored his 13th and 14th goals of the year against the Rangers.
2 – Number of times in the past four games that the Leafs have allowed two shorthanded goals in the same two-minute power-play.
10 – Shorthanded goals scored against the Leafs this season, tied for most in the league.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 21% (6th)
Season: 77.7% (28th)
Quote of the Night
"Gray. Bald. Old. All of the above."
-Randy Carlyle on the effect of games like Wednesday, which saw his team blow a 2-0 lead on the power-play.
Quote of the Night II
"Work on our power-play I guess."
-Jonathan Bernier, on how to better protect third period leads.
The Leafs host the Flyers at home on Saturday before hitting the road for a challenging five-game road trip.