Toronto Seeks Redemption And Validity in Buffalo

After the Leafs came out flat for the better part of two periods on Wednesday against Phoenix, they will need a substantially better effort against the Sabres tomorrow in Buffalo. Media is blaming the Grabovski line for the -3 they laid in the 2nd period. Wilson is blaming the defense(*cough*Finger*cough*). But a better reason is the busy schedule and the fact that the Leafs don't have the time to address any of the nagging issues left over from the October/November melt down. Among those, the obvious deficiency on the penalty-kill, the free-falling power-play and the general defensive positioning of the team.

As long as the Leafs continue to forecheck and get the puck out of their own zone at the right times, they can get back to winning. Pretty easy to type from where I sit, but with the holidays around the corner and families to think of, these players may still have 4 more games before then to plummet to that final spot in the East again. There are 2games against a Buffalo team that always presents a problem, a game against a Boston team that continues to embarrass Kessel and the Leafs as well as a 1 off against the Islanders. The Leafs could either be sitting pretty in 10th or licking their wounds in 15th. I'll try to get another article or 2 in before the holidays, but if I don't have a great week!


Leafs Simply Have To Fix The Penalty Kill

I know this isn't news to anyone, but the Leafs powerplay is still rock bottom and letting in goals at the worst possible times(ever?). While the Leafs are way down on the number of penalties they take compared to last year, their ability to kill them has gotten substantially worse. I literally cringe every time they take a penalty, I have that little faith in their abilities. When looking at the stats to write this, I was amazed to see that the PK is equally atrocious at home and on the road. I was at least hoping that their penchant to lose at home may have been precipitated by an extra bad PK there. Nope. Their PK is actually fractionally better at home at 70.8%, compared to 70.4% on the road. That just leads me to believe two things: the PK coaching is really bad and we don't have the players to play the roles. Ranked 13th being short-handed 119 times, the Leafs have let in 35 goals. That's practically 1 in 3 PK's lets in a goal.

I don't think people should be running around screaming about making the playoffs when we can't kill a penalty. Playing in fear of taking a penalty and loathing going on the ice to kill it, will not get the Leafs above 8th. What do they expect in the playoffs? That they can score 5 goals a game for 16 wins? Living in Victoria, I don't get much insight as to how the Leafs actually train for their jobs, but with the schedule this month there will be a whole lot of optional morning skates without much coaching or direction.

I think it's easy to get caught up in a streak or a decent short term record. Although at times it may make watching the season unfold a little more painful, I like to take the games one at a time. What worked? What didn't? Then, how is that looking over time? Short term; what a great kill of a double minor in the first period last night! Over time; the PK is looking worse every game. The Leafs are guaranteed to let in one short-handed goal per game. That doesn't really add to the entertainment value we've been promised as fans, either.

So, just in case you get too excited about jumping past some teams and sliding into the playoffs in the final week of the season, keep watching the penalty kill and hope that Ron Wilson can do something before it's too late.


Leafs Rebound Against Atlanta

Tonight the Maple Leafs showed the forecheck that made Ron Wilson famous. The first and second periods saw the forwards chasing hard in the opposing corners and finishing checks. The goaltending was passable with a few in-tight saves made by Vesa Toskala near the end of the first period, showing the rest of the Leafs corps that he was in the game and willing to win. As the game went on Toskala slowly lost control of his rebounds and needed to be bailed out by his oft-times maligned defense. Blake's new found lust for the net has waned a bit, but he still wants to throw the puck at it as often as possible.

The main story to me, unlike the fawning broadcast crew, is the schizophrenic play of Mikhail Grabovski. I'm not sure that the management and coaching staff could show much more confidence in this kid. So the proverbial ball is in Grabbo's court. It's finally time to man-up. I do believe I saw several signs of it tonight. Although the play he converted on wasn't as spectacular of the ones he either passed up shooting on or missed the net completely, it does mark a goal for two games straight for the future line-mate of Phil Kessel. Yeah, I said that. When are they going to give Kessel a shot with Grabovski. He's a fantastic area passer and Kessel has shown he can hit the tape of a moving target from 100 feet. I'm not sure I understand how they haven't played together, even on the powerplay, when Blake was on the first line for weeks. Even when it was painfully obvious that the Americans weren't clicking.

Here and There

Kessel had a great game after wetting his pants in Boston

Rickard Wallin returned.......to do absolutely nothing

The Leafs penalty kill came through in the third when it really needed to, although it it was only 1 for 2 on the night

The Leafs could not convert on a 5 on 3, but settled down to eventually score moments after a powerplay late in the third

Showing someone actually cares every game, Hagman blocked a puck point blank at the blueline, 5 on 5, with a 5 - 2 lead

Looking Forward

The Isles will most certainly play Roloson on Wednesday December 9th. I'm not sure that it will be enough. The Islanders are coming in playing .500 over the last 6 games, only averaging 2 gpg. Her's hoping Vesa can pull off another game before he goes Mr. Hyde again


Leafs Can Recover From Latest Slaughter

I have to be honest; I fast-forwarded through the better part of Saturday's Leafs game in Boston. The first sign of the apocalypse was when Tuuka Rask got the call in net for the Bruins. Every time the Leafs face a player that they cast aside in a nonsensical trade, that player is destined to have an amazing game......EVERY TIME. This is a parallel curse to that of any Toronto born player coming into the ACC under the age of 30 must score a hat-trick. And these anomalies are not going to be present every game. Ergo the Leafs can't possibly stink all the time. Remember that the Leafs performance against the Bruins had absolutely nothing to do with the horrid down-low coverage, undisciplined play and subsequent ineptitude in penalty-killing, or complete disinterest in playing at all. It was all just a little bit f head-games based on Tuuka Rask being much better than all 3 of the goaltenders the Leafs have attempted to trot out as first string netminders(and to anyone thinking that Gustavsson is better, he's not, not yet).

Let's get to the point of the post today; the guaranteed recovery from the absolutely embarrassing display in Boston. It's really quite simple. The Leafs need to get back to the way they played against the Montreal Canadiens. A hard-hitting forecheck that gave no quarter. A defense that was willing to collapse and block shots(as opposed to screening the goaltender and deflecting the pucks into the net). A little bit of pride never hurt anything either.

So what do I see for Atlanta when they are in Toronto Tomorrow? Oh crap, I just remembered that Antropov was given away for a late second round pick and probably has a hat-trick to prove against Brian Burke. Well, let's call it 5-2 Atlanta.


Why Are The Leafs Winning Now?

There's some really great reasons the Leafs have seemed to turn around their play of late.

  • Their penalty killing, while not fixed, is looking a lot more aggressive at the points and in the corners. Every member of the PK is blocking shots, regardless of the size of their paycheque. They're also getting the puck over the blueline when they get it. This may sound simple, but recall a few games in November and you will remember many pucks making it to the blueline, but never past it.
  • An team-wide investment in defense. Nikolai Kulemin is finally getting credit for what he has been doing all along. You know why he hasn't been sent down to the Marlies(like many have screamed for)? Koolaid forechecks hard and backchecks harder. He's better than any other Leaf at rubbing out an opposing player before they get to our blueline in the neutral zone
  • The Leafs have turned the forecheck up all the way to eleven. Keith Primeau is opening up space for his linemates after moving up to the third line. The fourth line is doing what they are built for; pounding defensemen into the glass and laying the groundwork for the other three lines. Colton Orr has a game winning goal, 'nuff said
  • Jason Blake knew that if he was going to turn his game around he needed to start from his own net forward. Blake has been playing great on the fourth line and all his defensive efforts has lead to more chances offensively. Scoring two even-strength goals off of brilliant passes from Grabbo surely has his confidence higher. Evidence of this is the five alarm wreck around Mathieu Garon when Blake was looking to complete the hat trick
  • Turnovers are down, but definitely not gone. I think that Stempniak's extra work on the penalty kill has sewn up some of his turnover issues. Also, taking him off the point on the powerplay has brought his turnover rate down as well.
  • Crisp hard passes out of the zone, you just can't beat them. Even Komisarek has got his poop in a scoop with his first passes. And this leads to......
  • Luke Schenn's ice time is down. I'm not sure on this, but if anyone can tell me, is Luke back playing on the proper side? Schenn is composed with the puck again and making hard chips along the boards that had him stymied so far this season. He's also laying opposing players out on the boards. His pinches are more calculated and his shots are getting through and not rushed. Apparently the Leafs coaches still want to see more offense out of him, but at least he's trying responsibly now.
  • Francois Beauchemin and Tomas Kaberle continue to quietly lead the team. Much has to be said about Ian White, too. At the beginning of the season he was the only good player. Now that the rest of the team has caught up, he's quiet. Which is great, because that means he's still a part of the solution and not causing new problems. Thanks for help leading us out of the worst funk in franchise history, Ian.
That's about how I see it. What did I miss?



Well the Leafs found a new and improved way to platoon goaltenders..........in the same game. All lame jokes aside, our number one goalie is now Joey MacDonald. MacDonald showed that he can play competently in front of the "conscientious" Leafs defense, but still needs to show that he can play in front of the "perpetual turnover machine" defense. The defense were clearing pucks from the crease after rebounds and not panicking in the corners. The two biggest culprits of blue line turnovers, Stempniak and Blake, had their backs covered. Although Grabbo decided the game hadn't been exciting enough and left a drop-pass bomb on the Montreal blue line with 2 minutes left to go. Again the much-tightened defense corralled the puck and sent it to center.

If we can play a complete game like this against an also-struggling Steve Mason, I may still be able to shave before New Years. Only 3 wins to go to reach 10. Let's go Leafs, let's go for double digit wins this season.

Is it just me or is Phil Kessel looking like a hell of a setup man? Is anyone still wondering if this kid relied on Marc Savard? Seriously, Kessel is a point per game playing with Matt Stajan, the second least obvious first-line center behind Shawn Horcoff. Good for Stajan, though. That's the second breakaway snipe in a week. Thanks for stepping it up, Matty!(I'm sure he reads my blog).

So is anyone missing the lateral sweeps through the slot of John Mitchell yet? Not me. Hanson was guilty of a few turnovers, but otherwise is playing great 4th line energy player-style hockey. This also allows Primeau to pop up to the third line, where he has been a force in the corners. Overall I like the current make-up of the team. They came back after being shut out and played the same style of forechecking hockey and beat the second-coming of Patrick Roy last night. Not sure if anyone has ever actually said that about Price before, but it seems he has those expectations. All told last night was the most enjoyable game of the year for me and look forward to a few more of that caliber before seasons end.


It's A Crying Game

After reading an article from Slamsports, a particular quote jumped off the screen at me. Toskala said, “It was a minor tweak. I just have to get it out of my head that I’m not afraid to jump on that side. That will come with practice.” The last thing I am looking forward to is The Vesa playing with any trepidation. I'm not sure my heart can take it. As far as tonight's game, I am almost positive that Carey Price is due a complete meltdown. I remember that precious game last year when Caring Carey cried talking to the press about how terrible he had been that night losing 5-2. Hey, there's nothing wrong with having a wee cry. I think it showed a lot of balls being honest in an interview. With Jeremy Roenick retiring, who else is going to say it as it is? Jeff Finger is in tonight, replacing the vaguely injured Gunnarsson. If anything, there might be some more shots getting blocked with Finger and Komisarek back in the lineup. Let's look for a tighter defensive outing and more saves of shots from outside the top of the circles; that's Toskala's job letting those in.