The Leafs were in Brooklyn tonight visiting a couple familiar faces in Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. Meanwhile, Michael Grabner got to face the team he played for for the previous three years, and got to do so on the top line with Nazem Kadri, matched against John Tavares.
The Leafs began this game looking like they had a case of turkey dinner hangover, giving up a great chance less than a minute in after Tavares made a great tip pass to Brock Nelson who fortunately missed the net. Seconds later, it was Roman Polak who appeared to still have some cranberry sauce jamming his brain, as he whipped a clearing attempt along the ice right up the middle, leading to another chance. The Leafs hardly got into the offensive zone at all until Nelson took a hooking penalty.
Worth noting is that it was a very physical beginning to the game. Kadri got a great hit in on Tavares early on, Johnny Boychuk absolutely decked Grabner, and Cal Clutterbuck destroyed Morgan Rielly as the Leafs' young defender kicked at the puck in his skates. Even Roman Polak got trucked. The good news is that everyone survived no worse for wear till the second period.
The Leafs' attack came to life slowly (Byron Froese came close to scoring just over 11 minutes in), but the team looked disorganized in its own zone, struggling to complete the types of routine, short passes that have helped them get out of their own zone cleanly for much of this season.
By the end of the first twenty minutes, the Leafs had taken control of the flow of play, even if the score remained tied at doughnuts. The shots were 12-8 for the Leafs, though the shot attempts were much more even, suggesting that New York's 5-on-5 play was at least as good as that of Toronto's.
It was Tyler Bozak who scored his ninth goal of the season to open the scoring for the Leafs, cashing in on a Polak shot that bounced off the back boards and right onto his stick.
Very shortly afterwards, it was Kadri who rushed down the wing and drew a hooking penalty. With an extra attacker on the ice on the delayed call, the Leafs maintained good possession and Grabner was Johnny-on-the-spot on a rebound from Isles' goalie Thomas Greiss to make it 2-0 Leafs.
The Leafs continued their strong play through much of the second, spending a lot of time in the Isles' zone, and hitting the post two more times. Brad Boyes had a chance go off the outside of the iron and then Jake Gardiner rang one off the post on the power play with 7:29 remaining in the second frame. P.A. Parenteau also had a glorious chance off a great feed from Bozak, but he slid the puck just wide.
For their part, the Isles rang one off the post at the other end immediately following the Parenteau chance, but New York couldn't capitalize on the rebound, and the Leafs went right back to the attack.
In fact, the only stretch of the period where the Isles looked good was a shift that saw the trio of Daniel Winnik, Joffrey Lupul, and Peter Holland hemmed in their own zone for close to two minutes before they finally cleared the puck. As soon as they were able to get out, the Kadri line got on, and Kadri had one good chance, and then Komarov hit the post with a great wrist shot.
The Leafs dominated the second period, with the shot count rising to 28-14 for the good guys. The Islanders were actually booed off the ice and deservedly so, since the score could easily have been 4 or 5-0 for the Leafs given the great chances they generated.
The third period saw the Isles come out with a lot more energy, pushing to cut into the Leafs' two-goal lead. Things progressed rather uneventfully until with 13:32 remaining, when the Isles found iron behind Bernier yet again, and then Bernier absolutely robbed Nelson on the rebound.
As the third period progressed, the Isles continued to step up their forechecking game and began to really control the play. Finally, with the Bozak line caught out against Tavares (and Polak and Rielly being out on the back end) the Isles hemmed the Leafs in and scored their first of the game. It was Nikolay Kulemin (who else?) who finally tipped it home with just 7:30 left in regulation.
The French-language broadcast for the game had a great quote: "if you get caught with Polak out against Tavares... you're in trouble."
The Isles pressed hard for the remainder of the game, but eventually it was James van Riemsdyk who iced the game with an empty-netter to seal the win for Bernier and the Leafs. The shot total was 38-26.
Notes on individual players:
- Jonathan Bernier picked up his third win of the season and looked pretty good doing it. He had some help from the posts, and didn't have to face too many tough chances, but hey, he was still pretty good. That's progress.
- Nazem Kadri got an assist tonight and now has 6 points in his last 5 games - he's heating up.
- Brad Boyes looked very good for the Leafs tonight. He was easily the best player in the first period for the Leafs in my own estimation.