The Toronto Maple Leafs should have switched The Whip, their customary tune after a win at the Air Canada Centre, for Bob Marley’s Redemption Song.
Thanks to the redemption of their penalty-killing unit, which bounced back from allowing three power-play goals last week in a loss to the Buffalo Sabres, and a redemption of sorts for Nazem Kadri, who was given another chance to prove he is ready for the NHL, the Leafs broke a three-game losing streak with a solid 3-2 win over the Sabres on Thursday night.
Kadri scored the winning goal on a laser of a wrist shot from the high slot, his first NHL goal of the season thanks to his extended stay with the Leafs’ farm team. But Kadri put the penalty killers to the test with a tripping penalty late in the third period. However, thanks to goaltender James Reimer, who turned in his second consecutive fine performance, the Leafs killed off the penalty to preserve the win.
“It was a good feeling, especially since we got beat in their barn a week ago,” Reimer said. “I thought our penalty killing was great tonight. They blocked a lot of shots.”
The Sabres finished with 42 shots on Reimer, outshooting the Leafs 19-12 and 17-7 in the second and third periods, respectively. But when it mattered, late in the third period, the Leafs managed to shut down the Sabres and Reimer said a lot of the shots they did get were relatively harmess.
“I got a lot of shots but a lot of them I saw and they were from outside,” Reimer said. “And at the end [of the third period]when they [Sabres]dug in, they got nothing.”
Kadri was called up Wednesday when Phillipe Dupuis went on the injured-reserve list with an undisclosed injury and head coach Ron Wilson challenged him to prove he can stick with the Leafs. The Leafs’ first-round pick in the 2009 entry draft made a good impression against the Sabres.
“It's nice to come in and have an immediate impact. I feel I can show I'm ready for this next step,” Kadri said.
There were two anxious moments when he took that penalty, though. “I was holding my breath on that,” he said.
The Leafs acquitted themselves well in the first period but could not solve Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, who has always been tough on them. But they stuck to their game plan of trying to create as much traffic in front of him as possible and it paid off in the second period.
First though, the Leafs had to get through yet another rough patch. As they did in Monday’s shootout loss to the Los Angeles Kings, the Leafs came out flat for the second period. Jason Pominville scored a power-play goal to give the Sabres the early lead.
However, the Leafs fought back over the last eight minutes of the period to take a 2-1 lead into the third. And even though they allowed a power-play goal seconds after killing off a five-on-three Sabres power play, the Leafs’ penalty killing unit looked good. It was three-for-three leading up to the power-play goal by Sabres forward Jason Pominville and finished the game five-for-six.
The goal in traffic was scored by Leaf forward Dave Steckel. Along with linemate Joey Crabb, Steckel was crowding Miller’s crease and he was the first one to a loose puck following a shot from the point by Luke Schenn.
Phil Kessel scored one minute after Steckel when he redirected a feed across the slot from Joffrey Lupul. The Leafs had some luck on that one, as Sabres defenceman Robyn Regehr fell to create an opening for Kessel.
When Mikhail Grabovski coughed up the puck to give Sabres centre Derek Roy a breakaway goal at 1:29 of the third period to tie the score, it looked like the Leafs might sag. But they kept skating and Kadri produced the winner less than five minutes later.
Wilson was happy with the Leafs’ effort against a division opponent, although he wished there was more time to enjoy it. The Leafs left for New York right after the game for a game Friday night against the New York Islanders.
“The problem is, we don’t get to sit back and savour it,” he said. “We have to go to the Island and try for another two points.”
The Leafs had the best scoring chances in the first period, as they outshot the Sabres 12-6. However, not all of them were registered on the shot clock. Early in the game, Matt Frattin had a perfect setup in the slot from Grabovski but fanned on the shot. Then Sabres forward coughed up the puck to Kessel, who was stoned in front by Miller on the shot and the rebound. Then, with two minutes to go, Tyler Bozak couldn’t corral the puck in front to get it over Miller’s pads. The Sabres had their own whiffs, too, as Matt Ellis couldn’t get hold of the puck with about 50 seconds left and an open net in front of him.
BAD LUCK CONTINUES
Reimer is lamenting the fact he can’t get any bounces these days and he didn’t get another one in the second period. The Leafs worked hard to kill off a five-on-three Sabres power play but just as Nikolai Kulemin stepped on the ice to cut it to a five-on-four, a shot by Pominville hit Schenn and bounced into the net to give the Sabres a 1-0 lead at 11:49 of the second period.
TRADING POWER PLAYS
The five-on-three Sabres power play was created when a clearing attempt by Bozak went into the seats for a delay-of-game penalty. Less than a minute after the Sabres scored, the visitors took a penalty and then Sabres centre Paul Gaustad launched the puck into the seats to give the Leafs a five-on-three power play for almost a minute. But all the Leafs could do was make several poor decisions with the puck.
THE 20-GOAL MAN
Kessel’s second-period goal was his 20th of the season. That made it four consecutive seasons in which he scored at least 20 goals.
Steckel was back in the lineup after a bout with the flu and he is still playing with a sore finger, which is why he is not killing penalties. Given all the Sabres power plays in the second period, Steckel only had two shifts but he scored a gritty goal on his second one. Then he had to spend some time in the dressing room, thanks to the flu, but came back in the third period.
“That whole line brought energy,” Wilson said of Steckel and his linemates Joey Crabb and Darryl Boyce.