The importance of going into the NHL’s Olympic break on a roll is such that the new-look Toronto Maple Leafs will likely show their shuffled roster Saturday to the shell-shocked Vancouver Canucks.
Since only a couple of Leafs players skated Friday (injured forwards Trevor Smith and Dave Bolland), head coach Randy Carlyle wasn’t hanging around at the practice rink to confirm anything. But there was no sign of a return to the status quo, either.
And if you are a Jekyll-and-Hyde team like the Leafs, better you hang on to anything that helps you retain your Jekyll persona.
The big improvement came when Carlyle shuffled the middle of his forward lines after the Leafs embarrassed themselves on Tuesday in a 4-1 road loss to the woeful Florida Panthers. Carlyle then dressed seven defencemen, adding Paul Ranger to the mix, and 11 forwards for Thursday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The coach kept the top line of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk together, and shuffled his second and third lines. David Clarkson, who has struggled to find a place with his new team, was moved to right wing with centre Nazem Kadri and left winger Joffrey Lupul, after showing signs of improvement in spot shifts with Kadri. The big surprise was Nikolai Kulemin moving from the right side on Kadri’s line to his first regular turn at centre in the NHL between Mason Raymond and Troy Bodie.
Carlyle leaned on the top three lines all night, and the fourth line rarely saw the ice. The Leafs responded with a 4-1 win over Tampa and are now one point behind the Lightning in the Atlantic Division going into Saturday’s game against the Canucks at the Air Canada Centre. (It features an unusually early start time of 6 p.m. EST, in order to get the players into the Olympic break as quickly as possible.)
While Clarkson played one of his best games of what has so far been a season to forget, with an assist and a couple of breakaways, Kulemin, 27, was the real revelation.
He stepped into the middle without a hitch in his sixth NHL season. He set up Raymond for a breakaway goal and generally looked comfortable dishing the puck off to his linemates rather than using his 6-foot-1, 225-pound frame to fight for it along the boards.
However, the speedy Raymond isn’t sure it’s time to get excited about the new look – although he admitted the styles of the three new linemates meshed well.
“It’s one game,” he said. “I’m not going to read anything huge into it. Troy works exceptionally hard, he’s a big body who gets in on the fore-check and goes to the front of the net and creates havoc. And Kulie’s an all-around good player. He sees the ice well. It was a good night for us, but it was one game.”
The caution is well advised, since the Leafs have a history of interrupting a run of excellence by falling flat on their faces.
The loss to the Panthers came after a run of nine wins in their previous 11 games. And even though the Canucks come to Toronto with a six-game losing string and injuries to key players Henrik Sedin and Kevin Bieksa, the Leafs cannot take anything for granted.
The last time they played the Canucks, in Vancouver last November, the Leafs rolled in on a three-game win streak and were spanked 4-0.
Jonathan Bernier will likely make his seventh consecutive start in goal. He has been the lone mark of consistency in the Leafs’ run of generally good hockey, which produced a record 10-2-1 in their past 13 games.
There are only 23 games left in the regular season, and with the Leafs in a tight race for the third or fourth seeds and home advantage in the first round of the playoffs, every advantage has to be used – even if it is the last game before the Olympic break.
The only one of the six sidelined Canucks regulars who might be able to go against the Leafs is Dan Hamhuis (undisclosed injury). The defenceman is also expected to play for Team Canada in the Sochi Olympics, starting next week.
Hamhuis skated Friday in Toronto, but Canucks head coach John Tortorella declined to say whether he will play.
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