By Allan Muir
It wasn’t the best night for Toronto’s Nazem Kadri in the face-off circle. Forced into a greater role by the last-minute scratch of top center Tyler Bozak, Kadri lost 13 of his 16 draws.
But all anyone will remember is that he won the one that mattered. And he did it by beating the best in the game.
With the draw deep in the Boston zone after an icing call, Kadri smoked Patrice Bergeron. Seconds later, the puck was on the stick of Phil Kessel, who fired it past Tuukka Rask at 8:59 of the third. The goal held up as the game winner as the Maple Leafs beat the Bruins, 2-1, and sent the series back to Boston for Game 7 Monday night.
Kadri didn’t earn an assist on the play, but it was arguably the biggest moment in a game that might have been the most important in a decade for the Leafs. Well, for one night, anyway. Once down 3-1 in the series, the Leafs have now survived two elimination games to tie it up and head into the decisive match with a real chance to make tonight’s contest seem like the appetizer to a great meal.
Here are some observations from the game:
• Talk about sweet redemption. Kessel, who exorcised his Boston-based demons with two goals earlier in the series, pots the winner tonight and establishes a physical presence, bowling over Jaromir Jagr and Zdeno Chara with big hits that seemed to leave the veteran stars stunned. And how do you think the crowd’s chant of “Thank you, Seguin!” shortly after the winner sounded to his long-suffering ears?
Then there was Dion Phaneuf, who paid back his teammates for their support after his Game 4 blunder by scoring the breakthrough goal 1:48 into the third. He forced a turnover at the Toronto blueline and sent a pass to Kadri, then drove the net where he tipped home the center’s shot from just outside the crease. The captain played a much different game tonight, determined to earn his contrition. He was smart and controlled in his own zone, and his reads were exceptional, especially on the decision to join that pivotal rush.
• Midway through the third, Roberto Luongo tweeted out what plenty of Canadians had to be thinking:
Six weeks ago, popular sentiment held that Toronto needed a veteran presence in the net–maybe Luongo himself–if the team was to have any real shot at clinching a playoff spot. Now Reimer’s established a place for himself in Maple Leafs lore with two sensational performances that proved GM Dave Nonis correct for dancing with the one that brought him.
What was most intriguing about his performance tonight was how his style changed over the course of the game. For much of the first half, as the Leafs struggled to hold off Boston’s forwards, Reimer played a gritty, scrambly game, throwing himself from side to side to get anything on the puck (his diving stop on a Bergeron wraparound in the second was a game saver). But as his nerves calmed, you could see him settle down, control his positioning and the pucks just started hitting him. It was an impressive adjustment, and the lesson in comportment he learned could play a big factor on Monday, especially if the Leafs get off to another tentative start.
• Reimer’s isn’t the only star being established in this series. Jake Gardiner, who was a healthy scratch in the opener, has emerged as Toronto’s most dynamic defender while playing a rover-style game that offers more than a few hints of Erik Karlsson. He made several bold dashes deep into the attack zone to jump start Toronto’s offense, and used his speed to get back in time to counter the Bruins in transition. But he played 21:19, second only to Phaneuf, because he forced Randy Carlyle to keep sending him over the bench with his active stick and sensible positioning in his own zone. At this point, he’s Toronto’s de facto No. 1, right?
• Bozak took line rushes in warm up, but couldn’t handle the puck. That doesn’t bode well for his availability Monday night. The Leafs managed to cover for his absence tonight, in part because of a strong performance from rookie Joe Colborne, but the task will be much tougher in Boston where the Bruins will have last change and the home advantage on the draw.
• So, what’s going on here? Are the Bruins just taking the long road as they did three times on their way to the 2011 Stanley Cup, or are they headed for a second epic playoff collapse in just four years? Sure feels the latter, but if it happens, it won’t be Rask’s fault. He famously fell apart in the 2010 series against the Flyers that saw Boston become just the third team in history to blow a 3-0 lead, but he’s been absolutely brilliant in this set. He rejected 24-of-26 tonight, stopping everything he should have and mixing in a few above-and-beyond glove saves on Kessel and Phaneuf to keep the Bruins in it.
• Tomorrow might be a good time for his teammates to start offering him a bit of support. Outside of David Krejci, who was held off the sheet tonight but remains the leading scorer in the playoffs, and Milan Lucic, who played a strong physical game and ended Reimer’s shutout bid with 26 seconds left on the clock, there’s not a single Boston skater who can say he’s living up to expectations against Toronto.
Chara ended up with a reasonable stat line–one assist, minus-1, five hits, three blocks–but he was minus-2 when the game was on the line. He has his moments, but too often he’s looked ordinary. Nathan Horton was invisible tonight, as was Brad Marchand, who somehow had skate problems for the second game in a row. And poor Seguin, who had to hear it from his home town crowd, seems to have checked his hockey sense at the door. He keeps going to the same move—try to beat the defense on the outside and settle for a long-range wrister—over and over without success. He’s not snake bit. He just lacks the guts to punch it through the middle, or the smarts to find his linemates. A big reason why Marchand has been ineffective is Seguin’s inability to spot him when he’s been open on the rush.
• People keep talking about how great it is to watch Jaromir Jagr play, and how he deserves to be moved up to replace Seguin on the second line. Hogwash. All he’s proven in this series is that he was a lousy consolation prize after the Bruins lost out on the Jarome Iginla sweepstakes. Jagr, who has three assists and is minus-3 against the Leafs, has devolved into a one-trick pony, a big, strong man who excels at protecting the puck but has no idea what to do with it–or with his linemates–once he decides to move it. His lack of foot speed and insistence on trying to do everything by himself in the offensive zone has exposed him as a selfish, ill-fitting part. No chance he’s back in Boston next season.
• As if the night couldn’t get any worse for the Bruins: their plane suffered mechanical issues, forcing them to stay over night in Toronto and fly home the day of Game 7. The chance to get a get to bed at a decent hour will be outweighed by an early wake-up call, the break from their game-day routine and the dead legs they’re sure to have after that flight. Don’t be surprised to see them come out slow on Monday.
• There’s not a better anthem singer in the league right now than 2nd Lieut. Scott Newlands. The guy is nails with both the Star Spangled Banner and O Canada. Absolutely thrilling.