According to Leafs bench boss Ron Wilson, the maintenance crew really didn't need to scrape the ice in the Leafs offensive zone in either of the first two periods. The shots on goal statistic would certainly echo that sentiment, despite the fact that the Leafs were only down by a single goal by the time the second period had concluded.
With just nine shots directed at Fleury in the first fourty minutes, odds were certainly against the home team producing even a single point, much less a win.
Without Kulemin's snapper at the top of the dot off a slick McArthur feed to answer back for a Matt Niskanen point shot hitting the back of the net, all hope would likely have been lost by the time the Leafs took to the ice for the last twenty minutes, armed with a new sense of purpose after having weathered the storm for the first two periods.
Niskanen, recently acquired from Dallas along with James Neal, hit new team mate Chris Conner with a perfectly-timed stretch pass, enabling the diminutive forward to gain body position on a seemingly flat-footed Dion Phaneuf and walk in on Reimer for the 2nd Pens goal.
Clarke MacArthur sprung eventual game-winner Mikhail Grabovski with a laser-guided feed through the neutral zone which Mikhail Grabovski was unable to convert on the play despite a nice burst of speed and a deft little fake that almost yielded a favourable result.
The Crosby/Malkin-less Penguins pretty much imposed their will on the somewhat listless Leafs, who struggled mightily to find a safe outlet pass needed to diffuse the relentless Penguins pressure down low. Clearly, an alternate tactic is necessary in the absence of a bonafide puck-lugger. Captain Dion proved later in the game that he had the solution, with valiant rushes to the net, first, right at the buzzer to end the third and again in overtime to set up the events that would lead to the game winner.
Goalie James Reimer, showing no ill-effects of a minor whiplash during action in Atlanta recently, and did a nice job of freezing the puck to kill momentum, as well as handling rebounds throughout the affair. Thanks to the efforts of the Leafs newly anointed starter, the team in front of him was able to claw its way back from a 2-1 deficit to knot things up in a much more energetic 3rd period.
Carl Gunnarsson set Phil Kessel up from the point beautifully with a redirected shot that not only extended the enigmatic sniper's streak to eight in as many games, but also tied the game at two. The hand-eye coordination necessary to bury his 27th of the campaign was a thing of absolute beauty. Kessel is on an extended tear these days, and as goes Phil, so goes the Leafs. He'll need to sustain that intensity if his team is to have any chance at the post-season in 2011. Aside from his play with the puck on his stick, Number 81 is showing an inspired commitment to playing a more complete game, coming back to help out the D, while using his tremendous speed and stick skills to break up plays, knock the puck loose and apply back-pressure.
Pittsburgh continued to press late in the third but heroic shot blocking by Joffrey Lupul and solid body positioning in front of the Leafs net by the defenders forced a fourth period of action, in which Gunnarsson and Kessel connected once more, only instead of shooting, Kessel made a surgical cross ice pass to Mikhail Grabovski who made no mistake this time to ice the affair within the first minute of the overtime period.
Ultimate credit for the play however goes to Captain Phaneuf, who skated the puck behind his own net, and made a near-200 foot rush along the boards, fending off James Neal and Jordan Staal deep in the offensive zone before finding Gunnarsson diagonally at the point for the tic-tac-toe play that ultimately became the game winner.
While Phaneuf struggled at times during the night with body position and turnovers, when he dug his heels in, he became the difference-maker he must be, and although the rough edges are still there, what he's showing is a determination to push himself and his team to get outside of their comfort zones and take the game to their opponents. When Dion plays with that extra fire in his belly, good things happen.
The days of rolling into Toronto for a quick and dirty pair of points in front of Toronto-area friends and family are coming to an abrupt end. Improvements in puck strength in the dirty areas and the resulting increase in possession time while battling where it counts means more offensive options are now available. A simple chip-in, a battle on the half wall or a play back to the point all lead to more effective options for creating offense than what we have become accustomed to since those days of yore when people named Sundin or Gilmour ruled the rink in Toronto. With a nice blend of willing combatants that mix skill and creativity with courage and second-effort, once-harmless plays are now legitimate opportunities for offense.
Underestimating a team with nothing to lose but a reputation for coming up a day late and a dollar short could prove fatal for any wayward conference rival foolish enough to do so. No doubt the league is taking notice of the guys that are getting it done in Toronto. And there are many...
Final score: 3-2 Leafs in OT with goals by Kulemin, Kessel and Grabovski, assists to MacArthur, Grabovski, Kessel, Phaneuf, Bozak and Gunnarsson.
The Leafs now have 65 points and sit 4 out of 8th with 18 games remaining...next up: former Leaf Kris Versteeg and the Philadelphia Flyers, Thursday night in Philly.
Leafs vs. Penguins Highlights: