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Maple Leafs 5, Lightning 2 - Dave Nonis Declares Team Fixed Again

The Maple Leafs play 55 minutes like a team looking to turn the page and 5 minutes like the same old team they've always been.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports recapWar On Ice Stat PackRaw Charge

The Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-2, providing a significantly better effort after effectively taking a week off. James van Riemsdyk scored twice for the Leafs, who also got goals from David Clarkson (who has already surpassed last season's goal total), Richard Panik and Roman Polak. Alex Killorn scored shorthanded and Steven Stamkos scored for the Lightning.

The Leafs needed to respond after having a series of embarrassing defeats where they looked over matched and disinterested. This single victory isn't a cure-all, and there are still glaring issues in the team's play and the coach's strategy that need addressed, but this was a necessary recovery to at least keep the mood in the Air Canada Centre from turning toxic quickly.

1st Period

The Leafs start the game with a lot more urgency and energy than in the past few games, and it pays off. Peter Holland nearly collects with a pinching Roman Polak on a 3 on 1 that just misses. Toronto recovers the puck in the neutral zone and Daniel Winnik outworks the Tampa Bay defender to retrieve Polak's dump-in. Winnik then finds Clarkson through a seam in the slot, and Clarkson;s shot is perfect, against the grain past Bishop to give the Leafs a 1-0 lead 90 seconds into the game. Great play by Winnik.

Carlyle appears to want to go 'power vs. power' matching Bozak's line against Stamkos'. This goes about as poorly as one might expect since the line (along with Phaneuf and Franson) spends the entire shift trying to get the puck back and then has to change before getting any time on attack, so when the puck does make it back to Tampa Bay's zone, it's the 4th line on the ice. The 4th line generates a good forecheck, and it really is nice to have a unit that isn't cover your eyes awful like it was without the guys it featured last year.

With about 10 minutes left in the first period the Maple Leafs execute two full line changes keeping the puck in Tampa Bay's zone for close to a minute and a half, earning a polite (but should have been much louder) cheer from the crowd. I'm not joking when I say this might be the most impressive 10 minutes of the Leafs season to date; given their first period woes, what happened in the last week, and the opponent.

Time for another strategy nitpick; the Leafs go 4th line vs. 4th line coming back from a TV timeout, but they replace Leivo with Kessel. Tampa Bay ices the puck, but Carlyle leaves the Panik - Smith - Kessel group out. Get your top scoring line out with zone position against the other teams' weakest opponents.

Bad habits start creeping back into the Leafs game late in the 3rd. Nazem Kadri single-handedly earns the Leafs a 5-on-3, but Tampa Bay catches a break. Morgan Rielly can't get to Peter Holland's back door pass, the puck gets out to centre ice and then Jake Gardiner... I mean. He's the last man back (since Rielly pinched in), and has Namestnikov pressuring him, but he clears the puck to no one, Alex Killorn recovers and then puts a shot through Gardiner and over Bernier's pad to make it 1-1, which is how this period ends.

Jake's simply not making smart plays at the moment. And it's really easy to fall into the trap of your eyes tricking you by remembering his bad plays, but it would be really interesting to see how many of Jake's mistakes end up in his net versus the average Leaf.

(Sidenote: Kadri's second drawn penalty was a high stick where Clarkson's stick got deflected into Nazem's face. Deal with it, Tampa. Callahan should have got an elbowing penalty on the JVR roughing call).

2nd Period

Another strong start to the period for the Leafs sees the Leafs force a turnover. JVR makes a nice pass to Kessel who gets a great chance but is swallowed up by Bishop. I cannot imagine coming down on a goalie and looking up at just nothing being open. Ben Bishop is massive.

The Leafs 4th line gives the Leafs another early period goal to take the lead. Leivo and Panik do a great job generating pressure to keep the Lightning in their zone, forcing Matt Carle to regroup behind the net. Carle then makes a horrendous pass from behind his net that Panik intercepts and scores against his former team. If Jake Gardiner's miscue was a brainfart I think Matt Carle just got caught trying to make sure this game beats the 'over'.

The Leafs have done a much better job keeping their third forward high in this game, something that burned them numerous times against Nashville. The benefit has been that the Leafs have had numbers back which has allowed them to be more aggressive through the neutral zone, and they aren't giving as many clean zone entries away.

I also should mention that I was particularly critical of James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak's effort on Tuesday, particularly in puck battles and on backchecking. Bozak does a great job battling to control a puck at the Leaf blueline, JVR picks up the puck and scores on a 2-on-1, blowing a puck past Bishop.

JVR would score another goal later in the period on a Leaf power play. Phil Kessel takes a quick shot that Bishop stops but lets a small rebound out. The Lightning defenceman is nowhere near close to van Riemsdyk, who turns around and flicks the puck straight up into the top net. JVR's ability to stickhandle in close to the goalie in situations like that are just sublime. 4-1 Leafs. This team makes no sense.

3rd Period

The Leafs just miss a third straight period with a goal in the opening minutes when Peter Holland breaks in and is able to get around a sprawling Bishop, but he runs out of room to put it in the net. It was a great move, and could have been the sort of goal to open the floodgates as the early 5-0 goal for Nashville was on Tuesday.

The Leafs are playing uncharacteristically aggressive with a lead in the third. Tampa Bay has looked completely out of sync and generally sloppy through most of this game, but the Leafs are being significantly morea active in pressuring the Lightning in their own zone and the neutral zone.

Another thing that the Leafs should really be happy about is that score effects have simply not taken hold in this game. Tampa's trailed for nearly the entire game but the possession metrics were fairly even throughout the game. The Maple Leafs possession numbers have seen improvement from their new record lows of last season, but they still remain near the bottom of the league. An effort like this will call off the dogs in the media for a little while, but we should be looking for more games like this to show that they've turned a corner.

With 5:30 left in the third, Tampa Bay pulls its goalie. Van Riemsdyk misses a shot at the empty net, and Stamkos scores off a scramble with 4 minutes left. Carlyle Hockey (TM) time.

You could be forgiven for having PTSD flashbacks to May 2013 in the final minutes. Tampa Bay continues to aggresively push forward, pulling the goalie once again, and the pressure the Lightning put on the Leafs is immense, and the Leafs abandon what got them this far in the game; back into a passive shell, reacting, just generally looking as if they haven't a clue on how to withstand the siege except simply pray. The Lightning could have easily scored on about five different chances in this stretch of two minutes.

Luckily, the Leafs are able to withstand the barrage, and Roman Polak ices the game with an empty netter off a Tyler Bozak faceoff win.

Random Observations

The 4th line did a very solid job tonight. Richard Panik has proved a useful depth forward and Josh Leivo had a very effective game on the forecheck. I'd like to see these guys get more of a chance further up the lineup.

The Fenwick chart from the last five minutes of this game is hilarious, just two straight lines going in opposite directions. Carlyle Hockey needs to die immediately. Most players had decent possession numbers until the last five minutes when everything crashed. Winnik and Clarkson were the only Leafs with a positive Fenwick +/-.

Nazem Kadri is now a 3rd line centre for reasons that make absolutely no sense. It's great that the Leafs are finally utilizing Peter Holland (who had a fine game tonight).

Outside of the Gardiner mistake on the 1st goal, a relatively clean game from the Leafs D. As I mentioned above, the high forward gave them more opportunities to pressure Tampa's forwards. Outside of the last five minutes, that is.

The Leafs are tied with the Ottawa Senators for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, but find themselves on the outside by virtue of having played more games. They are one point behind the Detroit Red Wings, their opponent on Saturday night.

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