In a second straight loss to the Detroit Red Wings, the Leafs' David Clarkson played some of his best hockey for the Maple Leafs. The third line of Clarkson, Santorelli, and Komarov was the best line for the Leafs on Saturday night, creating chaos in the Red Wing's zone.
Toronto - October 19, 2014 - Saturday night in Detroit, the Leafs fell 1-0 in overtime to the Red Wing’s. It was a high paced game that featured two goalies in Jonathan Bernier and Jonas Gustavsson playing excellent all game long. However with 10 seconds left in the overtime period, Red Wing’s captain Henrik Zetterberg put a perfectly placed one timer past the outstretched leg of netminder Jonathan Bernier to lift the Wings in consecutive games over the Leafs. Despite the late heart break the Leafs’ looked much improved over Friday’s game in Toronto.
Jonathan Bernier certainly re-claimed the starting job Saturday night with an outstanding performance. Bernier was solid between the pipes saving 31 of 32 shots, many of which were difficult saves through the heavy traffic of Red Wings players crashing the front of the net. The most noticeable difference in Bernier’s game though was his confidence, Bernier looked in control for the entirety of the game, something that was absent in his first two starts. After Bernier’s performance against Detroit I cannot envision a scenario where he is not starting Tuesday night against the Islanders.
David Clarkson does not have many highlights in a Leafs’ uniform, however these two games against Detroit have been two of his best games wearing Blue and White. The third line of Santorelli-Komarov-Clarkson was good throughout the game however they found their top gear in the final 10 minutes of the third.
The third line posted some of the best possession numbers on the team, with a Corsi of 72% for Santorelli and Komarov, while Clarkson’s Corsi was 57%. This stat line looks even better though when you take into account that they only started 33% of their shifts in the offensive zone. So not only was the third line able to cycle the puck and create scoring opportunities far better than the rest of the Leafs, but they were doing it having started in their own end. On a team that has struggled for years with zone exits and zone entry’s, this has to make Leaf fans happy.
As impressive as the third line was though, what impressed me the most was their play in the final 10 minutes of the third period. This game was high energy and if you were at the game Saturday night, you probably have whiplash from watching the play go from end to end so quickly. Towards the end of the game though that back and forth play would stop, usually because the Leafs’ third line was on the ice. Clarkson and company dominated whenever they were on the ice leading up to the end of regulation. A depth line that can excel at possessing the puck, and causing offensive zone turnovers late in a game, without being a defensive liability is something Toronto fans have not known in recent years. If the top two lines can play with any consistency, and the third line can continue to play at this level it makes the Leafs playoff dreams a little bit more realistic.
The rotating door on defense continued as Leafs rookie and early standout Stuart Percy was the healthy scratch, allowing for Stephane Robidas to make his return to the lineup. This was not a surprise considering the Red Wings ate Percy alive on Friday night. All in all the Leafs’ defense looked much improved 24 hours after a disappointing night on Friday. The most notable improvement was in Cody Franson who sported the highest Corsi on the team at 72%. New Leaf Roman Polak struggled the most tonight on the Leafs’ blue line, though I would be surprised to see him scratched on Tuesday. With the Leafs’ defensive unit playing some of their best hockey Saturday night, I do not expect Stuart Percy to return on Tuesday night against the New York Islanders.
After Saturday night’s game there isn’t much new to be said about the Leafs’ top two lines. They’re simply not getting it done at the moment. The second line of Lupul-Kadri-Winnik did return to form Saturday night after a disappointing performance the night before, however the lack of goal scoring is Toronto’s biggest problem right now.
The Leafs’ are currently on the fringe of getting hot, they’re close to really turning it on. Assuming Bernier can continue to put up games like he did on Saturday, and the defense can simply play effectively, all they need is their top two lines to start scoring.
The Leafs’ won games last year by outscoring their opponent while their goalie makes highlight saves. Meanwhile their defense simply does what they need to do to keep the Leafs’ in the game. If the top two lines can just start scoring and the third line continues it’s ability to grind and possess the puck, the Leafs have a real shot at putting up wins.