TORONTO – A third-period line brawl and a goaltender fight overshadowed Phil Kessel’s first two goals of the pre-season and a Toronto Maple Leafs’ victory over the Buffalo Sabres in a 5-3 win in the second game of a home-and-home double-header Sunday night at Air Canada Centre.
Halfway through the third frame, and with two brawls already in the books, the Leafs’ top line tossed their slick mittens in favour of blunt fists as Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Carter Ashton all picked an opponent and said ‘let’s go’.
But with concerns over Kessel’s well-being with six-foot-eight John Scott throwing all he had into the Leafs’ most valuable sniper, Leafs’ forward David Clarkson jumped off the bench to defend his teammate.
That however, is a big no-no in the NHL, where leaving the bench can cost a player an automatic 10-game suspension, which would leave Clarkson ineligible to play the Leafs’ remaining three pre-season games and first seven regular season matches.
“It’s a big loss,” Kessel said of potentially losing the local Mimico boy after the game.
“Everybody jumped in to help Phil,” said defenceman John-Michael Liles. “It is what it is.”
Both defencemen, Andrew MacWilliam and TJ Brennan followed suit, and even Leafs’ netminder Jonathan Bernier and Sabres’ goalie Ryan Miller joined in the videogame-like violence, all picking up fighting majors for their efforts.
Their adversaries included Brian Flynn, Mike Zigomanis, Chad Ruhwedel, John Scott and Drew Bagnall.
In all, the two teams combined for 249 penalty minutes, surely coming close to, if not, a pre-season record.
For what it’s worth, the netminder nastiness resulted in a tie as Bernier and Miller tired themselves out throwing left hooks and right jabs.
At the end of it all, the Leafs’ bench was down to just six occupants, and the Sabres were even worse off, with five.
“You want to stick up for your teammates,” said Bernier post-game. “Hopefully it shows great character [for the team].”
Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle spoke about the fisticuffs and said there’s not much a coach can do when young men get that heated.
“Obviously we’re not happy or proud of what went on, that’s for sure,” said the boss.
“I think Dave Clarkson made a mistake. I didn’t even realize he’d left the bench until I saw a video of it. Everyone’s attention was on Scott and Kessel.
“We just got scored on so I tried to diffuse the situation by putting Kessel, Bozak and Ashton on the ice, thinking there was no threat,” said Carlyle.
“Emotions run high,” said the coach regarding Bernier’s advances towards Miller. “It’s hard to pull somebody back when emotions run that high.”
Kessel finds the range
Kessel opened the scoring when he flipped the puck over a reaching Miller. Bozak fed the winger a cross-crease pass and the sniper was left all alone in front of the net.
Ashton recorded the second assist at 1:35 of the first period.
Halfway through the first period, Jake Gardiner flew through the Sabres’ zone on a three-on-one with Trevor Smith and Jamie Devane.
The smooth-skating Gardiner waited until Miller was flat out of position, and attempted a centering pass to Devane, but found Smith who buried it in the empty cage to make it 2-0 for the Buds.
The speed and transition game of the forward corps had the Buffalo blueline reeling for the first 19 minutes of the first period, and the inexperienced defence of the Leafs smartly anticipated the Sabres’ attack and clogged up the passing lanes in penalty-less period.
Outside of Liles, the fielded defence group had amassed a total of 151 regular season NHL games before Sunday, with 23-year-old Jake Gardiner gathering 87 of them.
But with 26 seconds left in the first frame, Nikita Zadorov wristed a laser past Bernier’s glove into the top corner for his first of the pre-season, with longtime Toronto Marlie, Zigomanis assisting on the tally, cutting the lead to 2-1.
Mikhail Grigorenko showed why he was a first-round selection of the Sabres a year ago, displaying a quick snapshot down the right-wing a little later on.
Carlyle experimented with young Ashton on the top line with Bozak and Kessel. Ashton seemed to have little difficulty keeping up with the speed of the duo in the offensive zone, let alone the rough stuff.
A scrap between Troy Bodie and Bagnall to start the second stanza set off new pressure by the Buffalo club, as the Leafs spent the first 10 minutes of the period hemmed in their own zone.
And with just over four minutes remaining in the second, an innocent-looking play resulted in Kessel cutting to the middle of the ice and letting loose a deceptive wrist shot finding its way to the mesh, with Bozak screening Miller.
Ashton also assisted, perhaps prolonging his expiration date on the Leafs top unit.
Sixty-three seconds later, Josh Leivo banged home a James van Riemsdyk pass after Joe Colborne broke in on Miller with a partial breakaway that had the Buffalo netminder scrambling to get back in positioning.
Bernier poke-checked a streaking Cody Hodgson four minutes into the third, and earned a wave of applause from the Leafs faithful, who are getting their first long look at the new netminder.
But with van Riemsdyk in the box for goaltender interference, Bernier couldn’t stop a power-play point-shot from Jamie McBain that fooled the goalie at 8:31 of the third period, cutting the Leafs’ lead to 4-2.
Then, just 86 seconds later, Corey Tropp deflected a shot into the Leafs’ goal, putting the Sabres within one at 4-3.
It was at this point that the wheels came off the wagon for both teams and the scraps ensued.
Jake Gardiner got things back on track for Toronto when he scored his first of the pre-season at 14:46 of the third, beating new goalie Matt Hackett, who replaced Miller after the fights, finalizing the score at 5-3.
Joffrey Lupul didn’t seem to have any discomfort as he returned to Toronto’s lineup after back spasm issues and played some second-line minutes with Nazem Kadri and David Clarkson.