TORONTO – Big nights have been few and far between for Jason Blake since joining the Toronto Maple Leafs from the New York Islanders two summers ago.
The speedy 35-year-old winger knows it too, which has made his recent hot streak all the more satisfying.
Blake haunted his former team Monday, scoring the go-ahead goal late in the second period and setting up two others, including Jeremy Williams’ insurance marker in the third, as the Maple Leafs ended a three-game losing streak with a 4-2 victory over the Islanders.
Now with six points in his last three games, he’s showing flashes of the impact player he was given a US$20-million, five-year deal to be.
“Obviously every one knows I’m here to provide offence and scoring and it hasn’t come together here,” said Blake, who has five goals and 11 assists this season. “It’s disappointing – believe me, I’m just as disappointed as everybody else. I pride myself on a lot of things and it’s just nice to contribute.”
He certainly did that Monday, combining with Williams, called up from the American Hockey League on Sunday to suit up in place of the day-to-day Niklas Hagman, and Dominic Moore to form the contest’s most effective unit.
Blake put the Leafs up for the third time in the game with a lovely goal with 1:39 left in the second. He took a brilliant diagonal thread pass from Williams, cut in off the right wing and fired a shot past Joey McDonald’s stick side for a 3-2 edge.
Then, with the Maple Leafs doing something they haven’t done much of lately – protecting a lead in the third period – he found Williams with a crisp cross-ice pass for an easy goal at 8:21 and a 4-2 edge.
That was it for the Isles and the losing streak.
“I thought Jeremy fit in real well,” said Blake. “He’s a very talented kid and he’s got a great shot. The pass that he made to me, that’s just a great pass on his backhand. All night he made smart decisions with the puck.”
The question now is whether Blake can continue his resurgence and whether he’s a long-term fit with the Maple Leafs. Former general manager John Ferguson gave him that deal when the team was building to win in the playoffs. Current GM Brian Burke will be rebuilding from the ground up and it’s unclear how Blake fits into his vision.
“That’s not my decision to make,” said Blake. “That’s obviously Brian and the organization, so whatever they feel is best for this organization is what they’re going to do.”
Ian White and Nikolai Kulemin also scored for the Maple Leafs (10-12-6), who completely dominated play but were forced to nurse slim leads most of the night because of the strong play of McDonald and two fluky goals versus their own netminder, Vesa Toskala.
McDonald, making his 17th straight start, stopped 33 shots and was perhaps the only bright spot for the Islanders (10-15-2), who looked thoroughly disinterested most of the night in losing for the fifth time in six games.
Still, goals by Mike Sillinger and Bill Guerin left them one shot away from better things until Williams’ goal put them away to send a crowd of 19,309 home happy.
“Give them credit,” said Isles forward Doug Weight. “It was two teams that needed the win and we didn’t come out and play that way early.”
Leafs coach Ron Wilson hinted that Williams may have played his way into at least another game, even if Hagman (concussion) is ready to go Friday at Buffalo. Williams has been called up from the minors four times and has scored in his first game each time.
“I guess he’s done this a few times in the past, had a good first game,” said Wilson. “Now the big thing for him is not to let it get to his head and keep doing the things he was doing tonight.”
Toskala finished with 26 saves, 13 in the third period when he made the slim lead stand up. The Leafs’ first two leads didn’t last very long.
Sillinger tipped in a previously deflected point shot past Toskala for first of season at 16:07, just over three minutes after White fired home Stralman’s feed from the point on a power play at 12:56.
In the first, Kulemin opened the scoring four minutes in when he came off the bench on a line change, skated into the slot and slipped Alexei Ponikarovsky’s pass by McDonald.
Kulemin’s goal gave the Maple Leafs an 8-0 edge in shots, but the Islanders answered just 12 seconds later as Guerin tipped Freddy Meyer’s dribbling point shot past a stunned Toskala.
Notes: Leafs rookie defenceman Luke Schenn (lower body) and Hagman sat out with injuries they sustained in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Washington. Schenn will miss 2-4 weeks. … Defenceman Jamie Sifers, making his NHL debut, and Williams, in his first NHL action this season, took their place. … Williams’ assist was his first in the NHL. He collected four goals in his first 20 NHL games. … Doug Weight’s assist on Guerin’s first-period goal leaves him six points shy of the 1,000 mark in his career.