Jonathan Bernier was a man possessed in this one, as the Leafs' netminder made it his mission to bounce back after his subpar performance last weekend. Bernier managed a whopping .907 save percentage, stopping 39 of the 43 shots he faced.
Windsor - March 9, 2015 - It was a game that featured two teams at opposite ends of the spectrum, as the Toronto Maple Leafs hosted the New York Islanders for the last time this season. The Islanders have been on fire this year, mainly due to the impressive contributions being made by the entirety of the team, including the league's leading scorer John Tavares. New York's head coach, Jack Capuano, also deserves a lot of credit, as he has been the catalyst for the success of the Islanders' season this year. The Isles entered the game with a 1-1 series tie with the Buds, as both clubs earned impressive wins over the other, beginning with the Leafs' 5-2 victory back in October, followed by the Islanders' 3-2 win in February earlier this year.
The first period was one of the best the Leafs have played in quite some time. Although the powerplay sputtered, the Leafs managed to enter the intermission with a 1-0 lead thanks to the terrific individual effort made by David Booth. Booth chipped the puck off the boards, fought through two defenders to regain possession of the puck, and lit the red light by backhanding the puck over the right shoulder of Isles' goaltender Michal Neuvirth.
There was a noticeable difference between the Maple Leafs team that took to the ice against the St. Louis Blues and the one that entered the Air Canada Centre to take on the Islanders. Both Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner showed their offensive prowess, as they took turns leading rushes into the Islanders' zone. The team as a whole performed well in the defensive zone, as the shots faced by Jonathan Bernier were kept to a minimum.
It is often said that in order for good things to happen offensively, good things need to happen defensively. After a failed attempt by Tavares resulted in a faceoff in the Leafs' end, Gardiner was able to force the puck out of the zone, resulting with Richard Panik obtaining possession in the neutral zone. Panik, along with Peter Holland, established a two-on-one opportunity in the Islanders end, and the play culminated with Holland earning his eleventh goal of the season.
With Nazem Kadri out of the lineup due to disciplinary reasons, the Leafs' depth players were able to capitalize on their increased opportunities. Early in the first, Zach Sill almost opened the scoring but watched his attempt ring off the crossbar. It was obvious Peter Horachek favoured his third line in this matchup, as the Holland-Panik line was on the ice often.
An unfortunate moment for the Leafs happened late in the second, as Booth fell awkwardly on an Islanders player's skate. Booth would be seen entering the locker room with an undisclosed injury. With news of Booth's injury, the Leafs' list of injuries continues to grow as news broke earlier today that Roman Polak will undergo season ending hernia surgery. Although they would lose Booth in the period, the Leafs would not surrender their lead, as the second period would end 2-0 in favour of Toronto.
For a team looking forward to the playoffs, the Islanders failed to match the intensity being performed by the Leafs. There were only a handful of solid attempts made by the Islanders' offensive leaders, which were all denied in stellar fashion by Bernier. Through two periods, the Leafs were able to generate enough competitive play to withstand the firepower of the league's leading scorer and company.
As the third period opened, the Islanders began to demonstrate the same effort and execution being put forward by the Leafs' club. With 1:32 played in the period, New York managed to cut the two-goal deficit to one. Just as he has done all season, Tavares provided his new teammate, Tyler Kennedy, with a perfectly placed pass in the slot. Kennedy would finish the play by snapping the puck over the shoulder of the Leafs' netminder. The play would mark Kennedy's first goal in an Islanders uniform since being acquired by New York at the trade deadline.
The Leafs were able to swing momentum back in their favour as David Booth would return to the game. Shortly after the Kennedy tally, James Van Riemsdyk took advantage of a loose puck and worked his way down ice on a breakaway towards Neuvirth. JVR would wire a snapshot behind the Islanders' goaltender, earning his twenty-third of the season.
Although Bernier managed to battle against a barrage of shots, the sequence of stellar saves would come to an end, as the Islanders would quickly earn two goals to tie the game. The first goal occurred on the powerplay, as Frans Nielsen would net his twelfth. Seconds later, Casey Cizikas would tie the game after Bernier failed to corral the puck on a rebound.
The third period would ramble on, with both clubs exchanging multiple attempts. There were plenty of quality chances for both teams late in the period, with neither Neuvirth or Bernier giving up the go-ahead goal. With a minute remaining, the Leafs held majority of possession in the attacking zone. Bernier made his fortieth save of the game with an incredible glove save in the dying seconds of the third. Needless to say, Bernier redeemed himself for the shaky play early in the period. Overall, the Leafs' goaltender was absolutely spectacular against the Islanders in a high octane and entertaining battle.
Unfortunately for Leafs' fans, John Tavares decided to prove his elite talent by walking through the entire Leafs' line and scoring the overtime winner. The beautiful play was a prime example of why Tavares deserves to be crowned the most valuable player of the season. Although he was held in check for the majority of the game, the Islanders' captain stepped up when his team needed him and scored the game-winner.
In a season of multiple lowlights, this particular game featured a plethora of highlights that were made by many players wearing the Leafs' uniform. What was a pleasant surprise was Horachek's choice to shake up the lines midway through the game to allow Holland to play alongside Phil Kessel and JVR. It will be decisions such as this one that will allow the development of the Leafs' young depth players, as they will grow and improve their abilities when given the opportunity to play in different situations.
It is obvious that the Leafs will look to play spoiler to teams itching for more points as the end of the regular season nears. If the team is able to put forward the same effort as they dis tonight for the remainder of the season, perhaps it will not be terribly difficult for Leafs Nation to keep the faith moving forward.