January 21 2014 10:13PM
In our Grade 8 English class, we were taught that there are three types of conflict for a narrative: Man versus Man, Man versus Nature, Man versus Himself. It seems an awful lot like the Leafs are angling for that third type. Oh, they decisively beat the Colorado Avalanche Tuesday night, with a late empty net goal by Jay McClement giving the Leafs a 5-2 win, but they didn't make it easy. That's six in a row, which came after a long losing streak where the team looked absolutely dead in the water.
It seems that win or lose, there's always a type of conflict present in the narrative. Despite holding a 4-0 lead, the Leafs needed saves from James Reimer late to hold onto a 4-2 lead and they did. After out-shooting Colorado 20-18 through two periods, on the road, on the second leg of a back-to-back, you may have expected some pushback from the Avalanche and indeed, it was 17-7 in the third, with many of the 17 shots by the Avalanche being high-quality chances, including a breakaway from Matt Duchene, and a bouncing puck in the slot that settled on Nathan MacKinnon's stick.
Nothing in sports is supposed to be easy but beating Semyon Varlamov was. One for Phil Kessel, one for James van Riemsdyk, one for Nazem Kadri, and he was gone.
The first couple of periods were pretty even, with the Leafs just getting a couple of breaks leading to goals. An attempted stretch pass from Dion Phaneuf to Phil Kessel missed, but the puck rebounded off the back boards and Kessel was able to beat his man Erik Johnson and skate on to it:
That's icing in any other hockey league as soon as it crosses the goal line, but was quite prominent in the Western Conference before hybrid icing came into play. A speedy team could time it right and beat the trap, but this looked more like a broken play. Still, a wide open space for Kessel, and he's just deadly from there (Kessel had two goals on the night and could have had four with the way he was burning Johnson all night).
The second goal came at the end of the period with James van Riemsdyk tipping in a Cody Franson shot for his 20th on the season. JvR becomes the sixth American-born Maple Leaf to score 20 goals in a season, the others being (trivia fans!) Kessel, Jason Blake, Al Iafrate, Ed Olczyk and Tom Fergus.
Third goal earlier in the second spelled the end of the night for Varlamov. It was another deflection, set up after a good bit of forechecking from Joffrey Lupul:
I'm not sure you can really fault Varlamov on either of the goals. One was one of the most dangerous forwards in the game alone in net, and the other two were deflections. Still, three goals in ten shots don't reflect well upon a goalie. Fourth time the Leafs have chased a goalie this season (Antti Raanta on December 12, Marc-Andre Fleury on November 27 and Darcy Kuemper on October 15).
Still, they didn't make it easy on Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Especially as Colorado was pressing late, Phil Kessel got some good chances on him and he had to stay sharp to keep his team in the game. Giguere was beaten quite early in his appearance, however, allowing this rebound on the second shot he faced:
That looked like it should have been it, but Nathan MacKinnon scored on a 2-on-1 thanks to a bad Leafs change towards the end of the period and again early in the third off a bad Jake Gardiner turnover and a wrist shot, and while the Avs kept pressing, Reimer was strong. Colorado pulled the goalie with 2:56 on the clock (the math likes the early goalie pulls, because losing 5-2 is no worse than losing 4-2. You may as well give it a shot) but Jay McClement and Nik Kulemin did a good job at keeping the play in the neutral zone, stopping two entries, and McClement scored into the empty net to give the Leafs a three-goal lead and seal it late, allowing us to wipe the collective sweat off our collective brows.
WHY THE LEAFS WON
It's a little more complicated than "Reimer". If you read the pre-game, you'd have caught onto how the odds were stacked against the Leafs in this game, especially on the second leg of a back-to-back. They tend to do poorly on the road, and against Western teams, when it comes to shots given up and allowed, but Toronto actually held a 2-shot lead through the second period, despite being ahead for most of the game. It took a while for Toronto to collapse into his shell, and it was nice to see that even with the team up 3 and 4-0, they were still fighting hard for pucks in the offensive zone and trying to keep the totals going up.
But then there was Reimer, and though he wasn't named a star in the building, he settled down after a shaky start where he was all over the crease to do all the things a goalie needs to do: stay in position, make self big, hold onto pucks during extended sequences in the zone and give the team a chance. This is a game that maybe Toronto would have won, but would have been a lot more nervous if Reimer didn't stop 35 of 37. A very strong performance from him.
The first star was given to Phillip J. Kessel, who took eight shots on net. At least four of them were of very high quality, and his line got the bulk of defensive zone faceoffs and still managed to get 14 shots on goal matched up against an Erik Johnson-Jan Hejda pairing that has been very strong this season.
Oh, hey, Toronto are now tied with Montreal (games in hand games in schmand) and perhaps I was a little premature in my dismantling of Randy Carlyle. When things are clicking, the team looks real good and it's at least fun, even if I don't think they can keep winning like this (but I know. They do, and it's enjoyable to watch Kessel and van Riemsdyk troll over opposing defences). Next up is Dallas on Thursday night.