TORONTO — There is a four-letter word that immediately springs to mind whenever Leo Komarov throws a hit on an unsuspecting opponent, but it is not necessarily the one of which you might be thinking.
It is a label that has stuck with the Toronto Maple Leafs forward throughout his career, whether he was annoying the opposition in Finland, Russia, the American Hockey League or the NHL. For Komarov, it comes with the territory. The world-class irritant and shift-disturber headed into Monday night’s 2-0 win against the New Jersey Devils ranked sixth in the league with 144 hits.
But while Komarov plays a relentlessly physical style that often tiptoes the line of good taste, it might be unfair to lump him in with the Matt Cookes, Patrick Kaletas and Steve Otts of the league. Komarov doesn’t trash talk as much as teammate Nazem Kadri, has fewer penalties than Phil Kessel and has yet to be suspended for a questionable offence.
No question he is a pain to play against. But perhaps the most irritating thing is he does it within the confines of the rule book.
“I just try to do my job,” said Komarov, who has three goals and seven points this season. “I read about it, like I’m a pest or something like that, but I don’t see it like that. I’m just trying to win the game for the team. This is my style. Yeah, I want to score 50 goals but it’s not easy out there.”
It is also not easy to do what Komarov does. At five-foot-10 and 187 pounds, he is one of the smaller forwards on the team and has already missed six games with an upper-body injury.
Against New Jersey, he delivered eight hits. But he was calculated in picking his spots. For most of the game, Komarov followed Patrik Elias around the ice, needling him with hits and the odd swipe with the stick in an attempt to throw the Devils’ leading scorer off his game.
That is the role Komarov plays. He hits, crashes the net, draws penalties (according to BehindTheNet.ca, a website that tracks advanced statistics, and was drawing one penalty for every 60 minutes he is on the ice.
It is a necessary role for a team that set out with the mandate of being tougher to play against.
What he does not do is fight.
Komarov, who fought twice in the American Hockey League this season — “More like hugging,” he said of the tussles — estimates he has engaged in seven fights during his entire career.
“I’m a little boy out there,” he said. “We have fighters out there if they want to fight.”
Having Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren on the team has allowed Komarov to do what he does with impunity. It is like this throughout the lineup. While most of this year’s success can be attributed to James Reimer‘s consistency in net and the emergence of Kadri, the clearly defined roles of the team’s lesser lights have been equally important.
Orr and McLaren are there for protection purposes. Jay McClement is there to kill penalties. Tyler Bozak is there to win faceoffs.
Komarov’s role is to play the pest, even if he does not much care for the name.
“Pest is a pretty hard word to use,” he said. “You can call me whatever you want. It’s up to you guys. But it’s like, ‘My name is Leo and I’m a hockey player.’”
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For the 32nd time this season, the Leafs were outshot. And for the 19th time, they still won.
The reason? James Reimer, who stopped 31 shots for his third shutout of the season and was named the game’s first star.
Reimer, who has one loss in the last 13 games, keeps proving he’s capable of being the No. 1 goalie. His sprawling save on Adam Henrique midway through the third period had fans chanting “Rei-mer!” and less than a minute later he robbed Patrik Elias on a one-timer that even stunned Elias, who temporarily raised his stick in celebration.
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Phil Kessel is finding the perfect time to heat up. After going nine games without a goal, the Leafs sniper scored the game-winner against the Devils to extend his scoring streak to four games.
With the Leafs on the power play and less than seven minutes remaining in the third period, Kessel fired a wrist shot through traffic that broke a scoreless deadlock. It was the sixth goal and eighth point in the last four games for Kessel, who was named the NHL’s second star of the week on Monday.
Jay McClement scored an empty-net goal to make it 2-0.
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Carl Gunnarsson missed Monday night’s game with a lower-body injury. The Leafs defenceman, who was out of the lineup for eight games in February with a hip problem, was replaced on the top pairing by Jake Gardiner.
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