It was a night when all the Toronto Maple Leafs square pegs fit into the round holes; for Randy Carlyle, the first time in his new job in which every decision seemed to come up aces.
Not the least of those was the head coach’s decision to go with James Reimer in goal, just 48 hours after suggesting he thought Reimer looked “nervous” in a 5-2 loss to the Florida Panthers. But upon watching videotape of the game again, Carlyle came to the conclusion that nervousness aside there was in fact little Reimer could have done to prevent them. “After reviewing it,” Carlyle said, “I felt he [Reimer]deserved to be back in.” So there was Reimer, stopping 34 of 35 shots as the Leafs beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-1 Thursday night at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. It was Carlyle’s second win since replacing Ron Wilson – his only other was in his first game behind the bench – and it was only the Leafs' third victory in 18 games.
There are of course weighty issues facing the Leafs, who have made a mental break with the 2011-12 season and are in fact auditioning for next season. General manager Brian Burke might wish he had made at least one of those trades at the deadline now – remember: he had offers of first-round draft picks in four separate deals - because after four years in charge of the Leafs he’s right back where he was: looking at a rebuild, with a soft, soft team that has arguably less truculence than the one he inherited. He has no identifiable No. 1 goaltender, this whole Jonas Gustavsson thing apparently a waste of everybody’s time and money. His captain, Dion Phaneuf, has become the Incredible Shrinking Man while things have spun out of control while Phil Kessel has stopped sniping and looks lost without Joffrey Lupul. Kessel gives Colby Rasmus a run for his money as the Toronto athlete with the worst body language to begin with, but with just two years left on his contract and the sense that he is far from a fit for Carlyle, it is perhaps time to wonder whether he shouldn’t be dispatched elsewhere if he can expedite a rebuild. (And while Leafs Nation drools over the possibility of Rick Nash being acquired in the off-season, might it not be wise to consider the possibility he realizes one rebuild is the same as another rebuild and decides he wants no part of Toronto?)
But the snowbirds and spring-breakers who made the announced crowd of 19,204 sound at times awfully pro-Leafs acted as if they hadn’t seen the standings or simply didn’t care. And the Leafs gave them something to talk about early, when John-Michael Liles scored on a power-play 1:09 into the game after the Lightning’s Brian Lee took an interference penalty seven seconds after the opening faceoff. Jake Gardiner and Joey Crabb also scored for the Leafs – Gardiner’s was a thing of virtuousity, as he passed the puck around Lee off the boards, picked it up, juked Victor Hedman to the ice and beat Dustin Tokarski, who was immediately replaced by Dwayne Roloson – and Reimer lost his shutout bid with 26 seconds left on Martin St. Louis’s 23rd goal.
The Leafs played the game without Nikolai Kulemin, who is out for three weeks with a broken finger. That meant the recently acquired Carter Ashton played on the Leafs' second line along with Mikhail Grabovski and Matt Frattin and Ashton looked useful, delivering three hits. Dave Steckel’s line did a solid job shutting down 50-goal scorer Steven Stamkos, who spent most of the game reacting to Phaneuf’s baiting and eventually squared up with the Leafs captain late in the contest.
“I thought we started off on the right foot. That was more of the type of road game we require,” Carlyle said later.
For all the talk about culture change, Carlyle has some very definite on-ice matters to clean up. He has spoken to the team at length about keeping pucks out of high-percentage areas near his goalies, and seemed satisfied with the Leafs' effort in that regard. He also made clear that while he was aware there was “finger pointing at the goaltenders,” before he arrived, “when you’re new to a situation, all you can do is analyze things.”
For his part, Reimer spent a great deal of time smiling and shrugging afterward, trying to put into perspective the frustration he felt after the Panthers loss by remembering an East Coast Hockey League final series in which he and his teammates with the South Carolina Stingrays had 18 hours of travel to Anchorage, Alaska, to play the Aces after blowing a chance to win the series at home. The agenda, as he remembered it, took the team from Charleston to Philadelphia to Phoenix and then into Anchorage. “A work in progress,” is how Reimer termed the team's attempt to conform to the new rules of the game in Toronto. Not much to show for four years, is it?