|Mikhail Grabovski is playing his best hockey right now. (Getty Images)|
PITTSBURGH -- As difficult as it had to be for the Toronto Maple Leafs to watch a three-goal lead with less than 10 minutes to play turn into a 5-4 shootout loss on Tuesday night, costing them a crucial point in the standings, there were still a couple of positives developments.
One of the biggest: the continued emergence of forward Mikhail Grabovski, and it couldn't be coming at a better time for the Maple Leafs.
The team is well into the stretch run and hoping to end what has been one of the longest playoff droughts in the league, being one of just two teams (the Panthers being the other) to not make the playoffs in the post-lockout NHL.
Coming out of the All-Star break they started the week as one of three teams deadlocked for what would be the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, which is why that loss in Pittsburgh was so damaging (potentially, anyway). The race is so tight right now that they can't afford to let any points slip away like that, especially when it's during a game they completely controlled for over 50 minutes against one of the teams they're chasing.
But the Leafs were still hopeful to build on the things they did well in the loss.
"You can definitely build on the positives," said forward Joffrey Lupul after the game. "Unfortunately it's starting to get to the time of the year where you need results, but there is a lot to build on there. We played one of our better games of our year for 50 minutes, and it's terrible to let that point get away, but we did have some positives to build on."
Among the positives: Toronto continued its recent run of disciplined play, putting itself in a shorthanded situation just one time on the night. Over their past 11 games, a stretch that has seen the Leafs put together a 6-4-1 record and allow just a little over two goals per game, they have been shorthanded just 12 times, including three games with no penalty killing situations. That is probably the best (and only) way to hide what has been the league's 30th ranked penalty killing unit this season.
Perhaps the biggest positive, though, was the aforementioned play of Grabovski as he completed his best month of the season with a two-goal performance that also saw him finish with seven shots on goal, two blocked shots and a 50 percent mark in the faceoff circle. And he did all of that while spending the majority of his night on the ice against Evgeni Malkin's line, which is no small assignment.
Getting minutes against the oppositions best player hasn't been a new situation for Grabovski. During the month of January, for example, he saw most of his shifts in individual games come against forwards like John Tavares (Islanders), Milan Michalek (Senators), Ryan Callahan (Rangers), Derek Roy (Sabres), Pavel Datsyuk (Red Wings), Evander Kane (Jets) and Steven Stamkos (Lightning). Despite drawing the top assignments, he still finished the month with 16 points (eight goals, eight assists), which was tied with Malkin for the second most in the league, trailing only Tavares.
This all comes after what had been a pretty slow start offensively, having recorded just 19 points over the first three months of the season, a total he nearly matched in January alone. The Leafs offense this season has been carried almost entirely by the play of its top line, Lupul and Phil Kessel, and there is going to be a need for some secondary scoring if/when that top line slows down. Grabovski has demonstrated throughout his career that he's capable of providing, even when given the task of matching up against the other teams top lines, which can open things up a bit more for Kessel and Lupul.
"He's playing well right now," said Lupul of Grabovski's play. "He had two [on Tuesday] and he could have had a lot more. He's bringing a lot of energy right now you can really see he has his confidence back and has his legs going."
Eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer, he would surely be one of the most attractive players to hit the open market (if a new deal isn't signed before then) given his skill-level, production and ability to match up against top talent and keep them in their own end of the ice.
Grabovski, who was celebrating his 28th birthday on Tuesday, didn't want to talk all that much about his own performance or his confidence level, simply saying "I'll start to feel better when we win the games, that's the most important thing."
If he keeps playing like he did in January, the wins might start coming a little more often.
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