Leafs 4, Sabres 3: Have the Dark Ages Ended?
After tonight's win versus the Sabres, if you're a Leaf fan you are probably still clinging to some small shred of hope that they can upset the apple cart and sneak into eighth place. Well, good on ya, I say. Whether they do or not, this season must be declared a success. No, that's not homerism, either.
Since the All Star Break the Leafs have been one of the league's best teams to watch. Despite their youth and inexperience, they have found new levels of confidence and cohesiveness, especially when the guy between the pipes happens to be wearing jersey number 34. While the air was thick with gloomy prognostications tossed around early in the season, the Leafs have not only avoided handing over a second top 3 pick to Boston in as many seasons, but have successfully identified key pieces to build around going forward.
The comfort level they have when playing in front of Reimer, a virtual unknown before his Cinderella- story promotion from the Marlies, is by far and away the most critical component of their sustained success in the back half of the 2010-'11 season. He just has a way of making the big timely saves that enable his team to settle down and focus on the task at hand, without the white-knuckle, panic-moves that have so often spelled ill-timed turnovers, stupid penalties or worse, that preceded the emergence of the amiable Manitoban.
The Leafs knew they needed to come out hard against Buffalo, and that's just what they did, with captain Dion Phaneuf leading the charge with a valiant rush up-ice followed by an absolute missile from the point that fooled Ryan Miller to put the home team up by one in front of an electric ACC audience. Phaneuf has absolutely taken this team and made it his own since the departure of both Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin and seven of his eight goals have come since February, five of those in March. He's throwing the big hits, he's scoring goals, setting guys up, and laying down in front of pucks , with four blocks against the Sabres last night. He's becoming the total package Burke anticipated he would be for the Blue and White.
Nazem Kadri followed Phaneuf's lead by winning a gutsy battle in the Buffalo corner before taking it to the front of the net where Daryl Boyce banged it home to go up by two late in the first. This isn't the same Kadri we saw earlier in the season. This incarnation knows how to sense danger, when to fall back and assume a supportive posture, and when to rush vs. Dump and chase. He also goes courageously into the corners, as demonstrated by his work to set up Boyce on the second Leaf goal.
Thomas Vanek replied with just 11 seconds to go in the period when he found himself wide open at the side of the net, completely unmolested. No chance for Reimer on that one.
If you were ever worried about Nazem Kadri's ability to put it together at the next level, take heart. He's a player, and more than likely, a big-time player. His rush to set the table for MacArthur's goal was his best display of creativity and confidence to date. Dashing up the ice, he literally danced around the Buffalo defender with a slick little inside-outside fake before throwing it to number 16r, who converted it for his 21st of the season. While Kadri may be prone to the occasional brain cramp by trying to execute a move that simply won't work against bigger, smarter NHL players, there is no denying the skill set. As he gains confidence and physical strength, he is going to be a real force in the NHL.
The less said about the next two gaffes that allowed Buffalo to creep back into the game the better. Suffice to say, Connolly was given too much time and space behind the Leafs goal where he was able to flip a quick pass out to Jason Pominville who knocked it past Reimer as Keith Aulie scrambled to cover him.
Carl Gunnarsson inadvertently set up Rob Neidermeyer when he bobbled a puck he was attempting to chase down, which rolled on him. Before he had a chance to diffuse the situation, it was behind Reimer. Wilson then called a time out and managed to settle his team down and get back on track.
At 13:35 of the same period, Phil Kessel and Mikhail Grabovski combined for the eventual winner as Number 81 picked up a great pass from first-star MacArthur (1 G, 2 A), as Grabovoski fought his way through the Sabres defenders before converting Kessel's feed for his 29th on the year. Kudos to Grabo for showing the tenacity to battle and create ice for himself.
With five points separating the Leafs and the Sabres, it's going to be an absolute dogfight to the end, but the Leafs have win-able games this week versus Boston, whom they have fared well against, and Ottawa. They are getting little help from Buffalo, and even less from Carolina, who beat Washington in a shootout to remain three points out and two points up on the Leafs.
In terms of playoffs, maybe they do, maybe they don't, but whenever they leave the ice for the final time this year, the ovation they get from their fans won't be obligatory, and it won't be brief. The Leafs have turned the corner. They are for real, and they're going to get get better. This feels different, doesn't it? It is the end of some very dark days here in Toronto for Leaf fans.
Be proud of your Leafs tonight...
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