Jake Gardiner #51 of the Toronto Maple Leafs grabs a loose puck in front of Dana Tyrell #42 of the Tampa Bay Lightning in a game on March 20, 2013 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Leafs defeated the Lightning 4-2.
Photograph by: Claus Andersen, Getty Images
TORONTO -- Jake Gardiner called it a "second chance." And that is what this was, for both him and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
After a 21-game stint in the minors, which his agent and others believed was too long, the young defenceman returned to the lineup against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday.
Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said Gardiner just needed "to come in and be Jake Gardiner." But with the team winless in its last five games, there was a tendency to believe the puck-moving defenceman also needed to skate the team out of danger.
"Is Jake Gardiner the saviour?" Carlyle asked. "That's a label that we have to guard ourselves against."
Whether it was the inclusion of Gardiner, playing against a soft opponent, or a sense of urgency that the season was slipping from their grasp, the Leafs dominated in a 4-2 win against the Lightning at the Air Canada Centre.
The victory moved the Leafs ahead of the Hurricanes and Rangers into sixth place in the East, although they have a game in hand on both teams.
Gardiner did not record a point, but he was a weapon on the back end.
There were times where he rushed the puck up the ice on his own or raced back to the defensive zone to recover a Lightning dump-in.
He even showed a physical side to his game by delivering a hit on Taylor Pyatt, which should make Carlyle happy.
No question, the Leafs looked different with him in the lineup. But the team also played differently than they have in the past two weeks.
They got bounces, goals from unlikely scorers and some timely saves. The big difference, however, was that they put their game together for close to 60 minutes.
After Saturday's 5-4 overtime shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets, in which the Leafs gave up four goals in a 10-minute span during the second period, Carlyle had said the team had to avoid "speed bumps."
On Wednesday, Toronto rarely took its foot off the pedal. After Joffrey Lupul put the Leafs ahead 1-0 in the first period, the Leafs kept attacking with second-period goals from Dion Phaneuf, Tyler Bozak and Nikolai Kulemin to chase Tampa Bay goaltender Mathieu Garon, who allowed four tallies on 11 shots.
Carlyle had to be pleased, but the level of aggressiveness might have caught up to the Leafs in the third, when Lupul was penalized for an illegal hit to the head on Victor Hedman that could result in further disciplinary action.
Though Tampa did not score on that power play, the Lightning made it a two-goal game on third-period goals by Radko Gudas and Cory Conacher.
They have played together for only two games, but it has not taken long for Lupul and Nazem Kadri to find chemistry. After Kadri set up Lupul twice for goals on Saturday, the two forwards were at it again. Lupul finished a tic-tac-toe play from Kadri and defenceman Carl Gunnarsson to put the Leafs up 1-0 in the first.
Lupul finished with a goal and an assist, while Kadri had three assists to temporarily move into the top 15 in league scoring with 30 points in 30 games.
With the trade deadline two weeks away and the Roberto Luongo rumours once again heating up, Carlyle reiterated the need for one of the Leafs' goalies to step up and "grab the net."
On Wednesday, James Reimer made a small step toward that. Making his first start since allowing four goals on 28 shots a week ago to the Jets, Reimer was perfect on all 16 shots he faced through two periods. But he did allow two goals on 10 shots to make the game closer in the third.
While the Marlies lost a puck-moving defenceman in Gardiner, they gained another as last year's fifth-overall pick Morgan Rielly joined the team on Wednesday. The 19-year-old, whose junior season ended with the Moose Jaw Warriors on the weekend, is expected to make his pro debut on Friday against the Chicago Wolves.
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