On display again last night was a level of determination not seen on a Leafs roster in years, perhaps even decades.
Trailing by two goals late in the third period, the Maple Leafs staged an inspired comeback, defeating the league-leading New York Rangers by a final score of 5-2.
A Rangers goal scored by Ryan Callahan with less than a minute left in the first period seemed as though it could be setting the tone for the next two periods.
Alas, the Leafs came out with great gusto in the second, and although they allowed the Rangers to get another one courtesy of Blair Betts, the Leafs looked to be the dominant team on the ice.
Persistence finally paid off and it was John Mitchell’s third period goal, his first in the NHL, that really lit a fire under the Leafs offense tonight. He took his time with a loose puck, waited out Valiquette and delivered a shot to the far corner that beat the Rangers goalie.
Mitchell showed a level of patience in his delivery not often seen in a forward who’s spent the past five seasons in the minors, and like we’ve seen so many times this season, the rest of the team fed off the goal and went on to score four more in just over five minutes.
You could make the argument that the outcome of last night’s game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Rangers was a result of a breakdown by the Rangers as much as it was the third-period onslaught by the Maple Leafs.
It certainly didn’t hurt that the Rangers defense had a complete meltdown and the entire team were coughing up pucks all over the place. Add to that the complete deflation of Steve Valiquette’s confidence and you’ve got a classic third period collapse I’m sure the Rangers would like to have back.
Vesa Toskala deserves his share of the credit for keeping the Leafs in this one.
I don’t foresee Toskala ever being a goalie who accumulates many shutouts in his career, as he seems to take time to get settled every night, and like a boxer who needs a good punch in the face before he really gets engaged in a fight, Toskala seems to need to let in a goal or two before he really starts to show the poise necessary to win games.
That said, once he gets comfortable in net he’s tough to beat.
Speaking of poise, Luke Schenn has more of it than most veteran defensemen in the NHL. Again tonight, he was responsible with the puck in his own end and did a worthy job of patrolling the offensive blue-line. He appears comfortable playing in the big leagues and I expect by the end of the season he’ll be getting top minutes on the team.
Schenn's performance certainly casts a shadow over Tomas Kaberle, who refused to take a shot at the net again tonight. On several occasions Kaberle had a clear shooting lane and chose to pass the puck rather than shoot it. You would think a player who won the NHL accuracy competition last season might be more of an offensive threat from the point, but Kaberle just won’t shoot.
Other Maple Leafs who deserve mention for solid performances include Jason Blake, whose renewed work ethic is making him a candidate for the Leafs captaincy while earning him a goal and an assist tonight; Dominic Moore, who managed to keep opposing defensemen on their toes at all times also earned a goal and an assist; and Niklas Hagman, whose soft hands and lightening quickness earned him an assist tonight and reinforced the belief that with the right guidance, this kid could be a leading scorer in the National Hockey League.
Perhaps the biggest asset of this new-look Leafs squad is their youthful ability to tire out their opponents and capitalize on their mistakes late in the game. Although it’s still very early in the season, if the Leafs continue exploit this asset down the stretch they may be knocking on the door to the playoffs in the spring.