By Stan Smith
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ 4-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night was not only one of the best games they have played this season; it may have been one of the most important games as well.
After stringing together the second-longest consecutive point streak in team history, a streak that lasted 15 games with at least one point, the Maple Leafs lost two games in a row for the first time this season.
Then came the task of taking on a team that has been as hot as the Maple Leafs, and had closed to within three points of them in the Atlantic Division with two games in hand. Not only did the Maple Leafs risk losing three games in a row, but they were also in danger of putting themselves in a position to drop to third in the standings behind the Lightning.
This game was important for the team’s psyche as well as their position in the standings. As a result of the win, the Maple Leafs stretched their lead to five points over the Lightning.
The Maple Leafs completely dominated the first two periods. They outshot the Lightning 15-4 in the first period and 14-4 in the second period. Only the stellar play of Andrei Vasilevskiy kept the game close. In the third period when the inevitable push by the Lightning happened, the Maple Leafs still managed to limit Tampa Bay’s High Danger Chances to four in the period. At the same time, they created five High Danger Chances of their own (stats courtesy of Naturalstattrick.com).
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Michael Bunting, who saw his ten-game point streak come to an end in the Maple Leafs’ 5-2 loss to the Washington Capitals on Saturday night, scored his fourth goal in five games. It was a nice snipe on a feed from William Nylander. Bunting put it nicely into the top left corner of the Lightning’s net. It was also his 13th point in his last 12 games.
After scoring only two goals and six points in his first 16 games, Bunting has since discovered the scoring touch he had last season when he finished third in Calder Trophy voting for Rookie of the Year. In his last 18 games, Bunting has scored six goals and added 11 assists for 17 points.
After missing seven games with a groin pull, Calle Janrkrok returned to action. He didn’t seem to lose a step. According to Naturalstattrick.com, Jarnkrok was on the ice at five-on-five for 72.7% of the Shots, 77.8% of the scoring chances, and 77.2% of the Expected Goals. Jarnkrok assisted on Nylander’s empty net goal to give him four points in his last five games.
If we compare the most commonly used left-wingers on the Tavares line this season we see the following:
While Jarnkrok is not setting the world on fire, he does seem a better option for a top-six role than the departed Denis Malgin or the often-injured Nick Robertson.
Matt Murray had a nice bounce-back game to pick up his eighth win in twelve starts this season. Altogether he is carrying an 8-2-2 record with a .925 Save Percentage and a 2.34 goals-against average.
The rotating door of injured defensemen continued for the Maple Leafs with the departure of Rasmus Sandin. He has a reported neck injury after playing only 8:30 in the game.
When asked about the injury following the game head coach Sheldon Keefe replied: “We will have to have him evaluated today and again tomorrow. We will have a better idea of what is happening with him.”
Keefe added, “At this point, I would say it is more precautionary than anything. They are going to need some time or things to settle and know exactly what is happening or what his status might be.”
I can honestly say that unless you were a Lightning fan there was not much “ugly” in this game. There was a series of incidents late in the first period that, as a whole, were not pretty. It all started with a tripping penalty called on Ian Cole with 18 seconds left in the period.
On the ensuing power play after the Lightning iced the puck, Mikhail Sergachev deliberately slashed Bunting on his hands well away from the play. It was a call that was missed by the four officials on the ice but that the NHL Safety Committee found was deserving of a $5,000 fine.
Then, after Nylander blew a tire and took a spill behind the Maple Leafs’ net, Mitch Marner corralled the puck in the corner of the Maple Leafs’ defensive zone. With two seconds left in the period, and Marner looking like he expected the clock to run out, Pierre Edouard Bellemare drove Marner into the boards from behind. Again no call.
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A bit of a melee broke out over the Marner hit. Bunting and Bellemare both drew roughing penalties. Linseman Dan Kelly tried to forcibly push Bunting off the ice quite violently. The linesman/player incident got a lot of play by the media but was downplayed by both Bunting and Keefe.
By my count, Tampa should have had three penalties called in that series of events. The first was the one that was called on Cole, a two-minute. Another was possibly a five-minute major on Sergachev for the slash on Bunting, and a boarding or hitting from behind penalty on Bellemare for his hit on Marner.
Linseman Dan Kelly’s exuberance in his handling of Bunting especially where it happened could have ended much worse if Bunting would have fallen. As it is, nothing much came of it. Dan Kelly could get a scolding from his bosses.
The Maple Leafs take on the Philadelphia Flyers in a rare weekday afternoon game at 2:00 pm on Thursday before getting four days off for the Christmas break. The Flyers bring an 11-15-7 record into Toronto and presently occupy the second-to-last place in the Eastern Conference. They have lost five of their last seven games.
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