With their top line mired in a funk of late, the Toronto Maple Leafs needed an unlikely hero.
And given where Matt Lombardi has come from the past year, he just might be the unlikeliest of all.
Lombardi had his best game in a Leafs uniform on Monday, scoring twice in a 3-0 win over the New York Islanders to help Toronto end a skid of only one win in five games.
After missing an entire season due to a concussion last year and labouring through a difficult return to the ice early this season, the two-goal outburst was what he hopes is the first of many to come.
After scoring only twice in his first 26 games in Toronto, Lombardi now has four goals in his last four games.
“Honestly, it took a while before I was feeling comfortable out there,” Lombardi said of his battle back from a head injury he suffered the second game of the 2010-11 season. “I just didn’t have my feet, I felt like my hands weren’t there.
“You think you can come back, and it’s going to be back to where it was. Obviously it wasn’t. You’ve just got to stick with it.”
In a game where it looked like one or two bounces may decide it much of the night, Lombardi gave his team an early edge with a 1-0 lead less than two minutes in.
That set up a lopsided next 40 minutes, where the Isles were hemmed in their own zone – at one point out shot 22-8 – and netminder Evgeni Nabokov attempted in vain to hold them in.
The Leafs eventually broke through in the third, with Phil Kessel and Lombardi both putting pucks past Nabokov to seal the win.
It has been tough sledding for Toronto in the goal scoring department of late, with only 13 goals in their last six games (five of which were losses), so Lombardi’s sudden awakening comes at a great time.
He told reporters after the game he believes there are even better days ahead and that he can get back to being a 20-goal man once again.
“He’s skating real well,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “I had this sense; you could see it coming. He was stronger on the puck; he was confident holding on to it. I thought he was ready, pucks were going to go for him.
“You just see it, that’s the sense you have, the gut feeling as a coach. I could see that coming and that’s real positive as we go forward that I have a weapon there and he’s feeling real good about himself.”
Lombardi added that he feels indebted to the Leafs and GM Brian Burke for giving him a chance after he brought his injury to Toronto in a trade from the Nashville Predators.
He was never rushed in his recovery, and he was worked in slowly as part of the team from Day 1.
That careful approach, Lomardi says, was what paid off.
“I knew it was going to come back,” Lombardi said. “I just had good support. The coaching staff and everyone here, they helped me along the way.
“They were being really positive. I think that’s key. Because you can get real negative and almost, not give up, but just feel like you can’t get back to where you were. I feel it’s coming. I’m just going to keep getting better.”
Monster’s roll continues
It’s hard to imagine where the Leafs would be right now without competent goaltending.
Even with Jonas (The Monster) Gustavsson putting up a remarkable .927 save percentage over his last 16 starts – and earning yet another shutout – wins haven’t been that easy to come by for Toronto due to the team’s recent scoring woes.
Against the Isles, however, it was the Leafs defence than came through more than anything.
“We played really well,” Gustavsson said. “I didn’t see a lot of shots in the first two periods actually. I think all over the ice we worked really hard, especially the back check – they didn’t get those odd-man rushes they wanted. Great team effort tonight.”
The Leafs finally get a chance in Tuesday’s rematch in Long Island to make up some ground in the standings. Both Washington and New Jersey are within passing distance should Toronto sweep the Isles and either the Capitals or Devils lose their game.
That scenario would send the Leafs to the five-day all-star break in playoff position and with 33 games to play.
Tavares shut out
Isles star John Tavares had his career high 12-game point streak snapped in this one, as his team was held without a goal due to some solid checking by the Leafs line led by centre Mikhail Grabovski.
While Tavares looked dangerous at times cycling the puck in the offensive zone, he had only one shot on goal by late in the third period and appeared frustrated after the game in the dressing room.
“We just didn’t establish our game and really do the things we wanted to to execute against them,” Tavares said. “It was real tough for us to get back in the game and try and gain some momentum. Obviously, we didn’t do enough to even draw a penalty.”