For the second night in succession, the Toronto Maple Leafs had to negotiate a minefield in the last two minutes of the game and for the second night in succession they did it successfully.
The Leafs ended a generally sound night of hockey on Friday by shutting down the New York Islanders when it counted for a 5-3 win, just as they did to the Buffalo Sabres 24 hours earlier. Goaltender James Reimer won his second consecutive game by forming a wall over the last two minutes, while Joffrey Lupul eased the pressure with nine seconds left with an empty-net goal.
The second win in a row for the Leafs sent them into the Christmas break a solid sixth in the NHL’s Eastern Conference with 40 points.
“It’s funny how miserable Christmas is when you lose,” Leafs head coach Ron Wilson said. “You don’t want to be Ebenezer Scrooge, so it’s nice to get a little bit of a cushion.
“Our team is a little bit naïve. They think they’re going to win every game. We let it slip and then found a way to get it back.”
Through the first 40 minutes, the Maple Leafs put up a solid team effort in taking a 4-2 lead, one that was needed because their top line of Phil Kessel, Lupul and Tyler Bozak was not able to finish any scoring chances. But everyone else, especially the Tim Connolly line with Nazem Kadri and Clarke MacArthur, was rolling.
“To tell you the truth, coming into this [game] I wanted two out of three [wins over the week]so it’s nice to get this,” said Reimer, who racked up 110 saves in this week’s three games.
By the time the first period was 12 minutes old, the Leafs had a 3-0 lead on nine shots on Islanders goaltender Evgeny Nabokov with MacArthur, Kadri and defenceman Carl Gunnarsson doing the scoring.
“We’re in a good spot,” MacArthur said. “Now it’s up to us. We’ve got 40 or whatever games left  To stay in the [playoff]hunt you’ve got to stay in the pack because it’s really hard to make up ground in the last 20 games.”
However, the Leafs have not shaken all of their bad habits yet. There was still a slow start in the second period, something that has dogged them in their last three games, and a tendency to take bad penalties.
The Islanders got a goal from Kyle Okposo to break the ice at 15:45 of the first period. Then Leaf defenceman Keith Aulie took a penalty for interference with 31 seconds left in the period that made the visitors sweat for a while in the second. Frans Nielsen scored on the power play 40 seconds into the second period and the Islanders were on the march as the Leafs tried to get themselves sorted out.
A shorthanded goal did the trick, reviving both the Leafs and their penalty-killing unit, which is showing signs of improvement of late. Bozak and Crabb did the work on the goal with Crabb doing the scoring to restore the Leafs’ two-goal lead at 8:59.
The Islanders, though, refused to go quietly. They roused the crowd of 12,432 midway through the third period when John Tavares scored from in front of the net to cut Toronto’s lead to 4-3.
THE FOURTH LINE
Wilson seems to have hit upon a good fourth line thanks to the recall of winger Darryl Boyce from the Toronto Marlies farm team. Boyce, centre Dave Steckel and Crabb provided a lot of energy over the last two games.
Kadri had his second strong two-way outing in as many games for the Leafs. He is showing the benefits of an American Hockey League education in defensive hockey under Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins. Kadri, 21, was disappointed and probably angry he didn’t make the Leafs out of training camp but so far this route is working better for him in the long run.
In addition to his second goal in as many games, Kadri screened Nabokov on Gunnarsson’s goal and made a lot of good decisions with the puck.
“[Kadri]is making all the right plays in our end,” Wilson said.
A good defence partner covers his partner’s mistakes, as shown by Gunnarsson during a first-period Islander rush. The two-on-two rush started when Leaf defenceman Luke Schenn fanned on a pass at the Islander blue line. But Gunnarsson saved Schenn's bacon by dropping back smoothly to break up the rush.
“Yeah, Gunnarsson was really sharp,” Wilson said. “He had the goal but he was really good defensively.”
AFTER THE BREAK
Following their Christmas break, the Maple Leafs are back in action and back on the road Dec. 27 when they play the Florida Panthers and then go to Raleigh to meet the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 29. The road trip ends in Winnipeg with a game against the Jets on New Year’s Eve.
Just before the game the Leafs announced defenceman John-Michael Liles would not play. He took a thundering hit in Thursday’s game from Paul Gaustad of the Buffalo Sabres, left the game for a while and then finished it. Leafs general manager Brian Burke said Liles has a sore neck and “could have played” but was kept out as a precaution.
Wilson said he expects Liles to be ready for the Florida game.