Undermanned Maple Leafs Unable to Sink Sharks
The first big test of a tough and critical stretch of games for the confidence stricken Toronto Maple Leafs came tonight at Air Canada Centre against the San Jose Sharks, perhaps the best team in the NHL at the moment.
To be quite honest, the Leafs played a strong game despite being dominated for much of the first period thanks in large part to a series of stupid, undisciplined penalties.
James Reimer once again gave his team a chance to win, but I am sure he would love to have that first goal back in which the puck had eyes and easily slipped between the legs. Reimer's effort in my opinion merits another opportunity against another Western foe Dallas Thursday night. After allowing the soft goal, Reimer came up with a huge, athletic kick save to keep the Leafs in it at the start and pretty much throughout the rest of the night.
Moments after that save, Jay McClement and Mason Raymond both were sent to the penalty box for a pair of undisciplined penalties, and thus the Sharks then took over the rest of the period and carried a 2-0 lead over a Leafs team who once again looked to lack confidence or show much emotion.
Let's be honest, it is tough against a team as potent as the Sharks, especially without the services of Joffrey Lupul, Dave Bolland, Nazem Kadri, Cody Franson and Tyler Bozak for part of the second period and all of the third. But the Leafs hung tough and did not let this one turn into the Columbus result or worse from last week.
David Clarkson will have a tough time sleeping tonight after ringing a loose puck off the crossbar as it sat in the crease with a gaping net in front of him. Perhaps he should watch a bit of "Happy Gilmore" before he hits the sack. At least that may help him feel better and heal with a little humour.
To me, the hardest pill to swallow by observing this game was the fact that Randy Carlyle gave way too much ice time to his fourth line of Jerred Smithson, Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren. It was McLaren's first period penalty that shook the foundation of what was a strong Toronto start against a world class, Cup contending team. After Smithson had been drilled by a clean hit by Andrew Desjardins, McLaren cross checks the San Jose enforcer from behind and gets called for it. Toronto ended up killing the penalty, but any momentum the Leafs had stirred up from the opening face off was gone. The penalties by McClement and Raymond were pretty much the nail in the coffin until the Leafs woke up from the dead in the second period.
Raymond had given the puck away twice in his own end, he ended up stripping the puck at the blue line from a Shark defender and led a two on one break in on Niemi. Raymond's shot snuck between the pads of Niemi, a shot that he probably would want back as well, but the Leafs were on the board and so was the rest of the team.
Players like Jake Gardiner, Mark Fraser, and Nikolai Kulemin followed up with some strong performances. Gardiner impressed me tonight. He seemed to take over the emotional aspect of Toronto's game and told everyone to hop on his back. Perhaps tonight was Gardiner's best game as a Maple Leaf.
The penalty kill late in the third period also kept the Leafs alive and well within reach thanks to some aggressiveness and passion by Kulemin and James van Riemsdyk.
However, it was not enough to knock off the Sharks. Too much overuse of the fourth line simply cost Toronto tonight. Those three stooges, no pun intended really, just frustrated with that line, should have no business being on the ice late in the period when the team had finally gotten their game together and emotions involved as well. They had been pinned in their own zone every shift. No excuse for that especially with the team not in a back-to-back situation.
Morgan Rielly's initial failure to clear the puck just before the scoring play did not help the matter, but there is no reason for Carlyle to give so much ice time to a line who had been outplayed and completely non-effective the whole night when the game was up for grabs at that point. Rielly still provided a spark with some strong defensive play and also led a rush himself, nearly beating Niemi for his first career NHL goal after the turnover that lead to San Jose's game winning goal.
I also think that Carlyle pulled Reimer a little too early. The Leafs didn't even have control of the puck when Reimer went off the ice for the extra man. Carlyle should have waited until the Leafs either got a face off in the San Jose end, or at least when the blue and white had complete control, which is never an easy task for a team that is so prone to easy giveaways.
Unfortunately, the Maple Leafs failed to pass the test this evening, although they should be happy with the effort. Still, any night a team fails to earn a single point is not going to be acceptable.
Despite the tough loss on home ice, the effort and emotion was there tonight. Hopefully, the Leafs can pick it up Thursday and also get both Bozak and Nazem Kadri back in the lineup.
On an ending note, please consider Nazem and his family with the loss of his grandfather. I lost my grandfather who I was very close with all my life three summers ago, so I feel his pain.