Johnston on Leafs: Different team without Lupul

The Leafs would not use the word concussion to describe Joffrey Lupul's injury.

TORONTO – Joffrey Lupul has been so hot for the Toronto Maple Leafs that he played less than two minutes on Thursday night and managed to extend his personal points streak to seven games.

So it was only natural to fear the worst when he made a wobbly-kneed exit after getting sandwiched by Philadelphia Flyers forwards Adam Hall and Jay Rosehill — a pair of journeyman eager to make an impression in their debuts for the team.

That sight certainly gave the residents of Leaf Nation the chance to start worrying and seemed to leave Lupul’s teammates a little stunned as well.

“When you see somebody wobble off the ice I think a lot of assumptions are made,” said Leafs defenceman John-Michael Liles. “I’ve dealt with it and it’s not a fun experience. All you can do is hope for the best.”

In this case, it appears that a little good fortune may finally have found Lupul, who has come to learn more about hard luck than he’d like between stretches of fantastic play with the Leafs.

Not only was he said to be feeling good after the Flyers finished off a 5-3 victory over Toronto, but coach Randy Carlyle pegged the odds of him practising Friday at “50-50.”

“You always take those situations with caution,” said Carlyle. “We’ll have a much better read tomorrow.”

The mere fact that it was even a possibility should count as a victory on a night when the Leafs found little to like about their first regulation loss in three weeks.

It was no coincidence that the team appeared to have little energy after Lupul went to the trainer’s room. He is clearly an emotional leader among this group and a much-needed presence in a dressing room that is short on veterans.

Toronto’s recent stretch of good play started the night Lupul returned after missing 25 games with a broken right forearm last month and it was his line with Nazem Kadri and Nikolai Kulemin that tied the score 1-1 on Thursday shortly after the Leafs surrendered an early goal to the Flyers.

“He’s a big piece of our team,” said captain Dion Phaneuf.

Added goalie James Reimer: “He’s an excellent athlete — a professional. He takes care of himself, he eats well, he works out hard, he does whatever he needs to do to make sure he’s as healthy as possible. One of the hardest working guys on our team.”

In other words, an invaluable player to have around when you’re trying to survive the last month of the regular season and secure the franchise’s first playoff berth in nine years.

The Leafs are sitting pretty in the Eastern Conference but it could get interesting if they were to fall into a slump now. There are two games looming against both the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers — teams that are chasing them in the standings.

It was telling to see the reaction of Toronto fans on Twitter after newcomer Ryan O’Byrne met reporters during the second intermission and proclaimed that he was “really happy to be joining a playoff team.”

Apparently, the “p” word shouldn’t be mentioned in these parts until an invitation to the dance is officially secured.

Reimer will obviously play a big role in determining whether that ultimately happens after general manager Dave Nonis let the trade deadline pass this week without bringing in a more experienced goaltender.

The 25-year-old was only so-so in his first appearance since that happened, but he was far from the only reason this one didn’t go Toronto’s way. The defencemen in front of him were guilty of turnovers and poor coverage and it’s reasonable to assume that O’Byrne and possibly Jake Gardiner will be inserted Saturday night in New Jersey.

And while Reimer was clearly unhappy on the ice after getting bumped by Hall shortly before Philadelphia’s fourth goal — the eventual winner — he wasn’t making any excuses for only stopping 26 of 30 shots sent his way.

“It was a weird one,” said Reimer. “It felt like I was hanging in there and making some big saves, but kind of goals kept going in.”

The Leafs players should arrive to the team’s practice facility on Friday morning expecting to be worked hard.

Carlyle was clearly unhappy with the poor performance against the Flyers — one that was made even tougher to understand by the fact the team recently enjoyed a rare break in its schedule while Philadelphia completed a back-to-back.

Asked about the play of Reimer after the game, the Leafs coach replied “I think he just fit in with the rest of our team.”

“We weren’t as sharp as we needed to be to have success,” said Carlyle. “I think when you score three goals in the NHL you should win. … We weren’t engaged in the hockey game from an emotional standpoint that is required and we’re all left scratching our head why.”

That answer could come soon if Lupul’s injury ends up being less significant than it looked.

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