Too Little Too Late - Sharks Squeak By Leafs 2-1
On a night in which two struggling teams faced off at the Air Canada Centre, the Toronto Maple Leafs ended up continuing their slump - 1-6-1 in their last 8 - while the San Jose Sharks - losers of four straight entering tonight - held on for a much needed 2-1 victory. Both teams have been terrible of late in their own zone with the Leafs surrendering 18 goals in their last four games and the Sharks allowing 24 in their previous six. With these poor defensive numbers the game began tonight with both teams seemingly determined to not make the first mistake. The opening period was one in which both shots and chances were scarce. The Leafs had a nice chance when Tim Connolly found a streaking Matthew Lombardi. Unfortunately the winger lost the puck and the opportunity was squandered. An absolutely boring first period saw both teams focus on their own end and avoid taking chances in the offensive zone.
James Reimer got the nod tonight in net for the Leafs, and it was crucial that he had a solid night tonight as the goaltending has been terrible of late for the blue and white. Reimer was hardly tested in the first period as he easily set aside the 7 shots thrown his way. The second period was different right off the hop though. 32 seconds after the puck drop Sharks veteran sniper Patrick Marleau found the puck on his stick just inside the left faceoff circle. The puck was on his stick for a fraction of a second before he wired it into the top corner over Reimer's shoulder. While people would like to blame Reimer for once again allowing a shot to go over his shoulder, keep in mind that few players can release the puck as quickly as Marleau can. It was a perfect shot that found the top corner, there really wasn't much the Leafs goalie could do on the play. Toronto was unable to muster any offense following the Sharks goal, as the Western Conference powerhouse defended well as a five man unit. The Leafs rarely attacked with their vaunted speed, as the Sharks forwards and defense held them at bay throughout the second period. Just over ten minutes into the period, Marleau tipped home his second of the game to give the Sharks a 2-0 lead. This time the Sharks capitalized on a power play, as their 3rd ranked unit struck following an iffy call to Leafs blueliner Luke Schenn. The Toronto defenseman cleared the front of the net following a Reimer save and oddly was called for interference. In my time as a hockey fan, I'm pretty sure that defenseman are legally allowed to check opposing players as they attempted to create havoc in front of the goalie, but tonight Schenn was given a two minute minor on the play. Once again the blame cannot be placed at the hands of Reimer, as Marleau re-directed the shot five feet from the Leafs net. As the Sharks doubled the lead the Leafs forwards at the other end managed to only record 14 shots through the opening forty minutes.
With the Leafs facing a 2-0 deficit, and unable to create offense through the first two periods things weren't look good for the blue and white heading into the third. Toronto came out determined though in the final period. The Leafs began the third aggressively and attacked the Sharks defense. San Jose goalie Anti Niemi made some big saves in the opening minutes especially on Phil Kessel and Mikhail Grabovski to preserve his shutout. However the Leafs kept pressing and just over three minutes into the period a streaking Kessel found rookie defenseman Jake Gardiner who blasted his fourth of the year past Niemi. Both the crowd and the Leafs seemed energized as they had finally found a way to exploit this fragile Sharks defense. Oddly the Leafs defensive style of play in the opening forty minutes prevented them from being successful tonight, as the solution to the Sharks was discovered in the third period. Had the Leafs played the style of game that has allowed them to be successful throughout this season I firmly believe they would have earned two points on the night. With a 2-1 lead San Jose focused all of their attention on defending their zone. While the Leafs attacked at will in the third, the Sharks kept all five men behind the puck. Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur, Joffrey Lupul and Carl Gunnarsson all had prime chances in the period, but were unfortunately unable to get the puck on their stick at the right time.
With the loss tonight - and the Winnipeg Jets winning against the Tampa Bay Lightning - the Leafs have dropped to ninth in the Eastern Conference. Toronto does have two games in hand on their Canadian rival though and with both Reimer's and the Leafs' play tonight things seem to be turning around for the Leafs. Despite the the result Toronto showed a lot of character in their failed comeback attempt. There is plenty of fight left in this young team, and had a couple of bounces gone their way in the third period tonight's result would have been much different.
Men of the Match
Leafs: Phil Kessel - The Leafs leading scorer was held in check in the first two periods, but found his groove in the third. Kessel was instrumental in Gardiner's goal, and created plenty of chances as the Leafs tried to get the equalizer. He is a great trap breaker and was fantastic in entering the Sharks zone with speed and finding outlets.
Sharks: Patrick Marleau - The former Sharks captain scored his 24th and 25th goals of the season in the second period, and had a perfect goal scorers game. Marleau was invisible for most of the night except for his two goals, but that is what good goal scorers do. I'm sure Marleau was happy to stick it to former Sharks coach and current Leafs bench boss Ron Wilson.
Next Game: The Leafs will host the Washington Capitals in a crucial playoff match-up Saturday night.