The Leafs tried to throw the kitchen sink at the Senators in the last ten minutes Sunday night. Trailing by a goal and relying on defenseman with offensive prowess (Phaneuf, Liles and Gardiner in particular; the captain seemed to be on the ice most of the night) Komisarek and Schenn were glued to the bench as the night went on.
The Leafs gave it all they had and, but for a couple of bounces, may well have pushed this one into overtime.
A few observations:
- Some fans are waiting/expecting (hoping?) that Gustavsson will blow up, but he has been strong between the pipes overall since having to fill in for an injured Reimer a little over a week ago. The third period goal by the Sens to make it 3-1, however, was a bad flashback to earlier times when a soft Monster goal would come at a very bad time. Reimer’s strength generally has been that his bad goals come earlier in a game and he then keeps the Leafs in the game late. We’ll want to see that consistently from Gus, too, whenever he gets a chance to play.
- Gardiner does something every game to impress me but I also see the raw elements to his game. While he is getting plenty of ice most nights, I just can’t shake the thought that he would benefit from time with the Marlies. He’s playing here while an NHL defenseman (Franson) sits idly by upstairs every night. He does give them something from the back end. I just wonder if a confident Franson could provide much the same. (If they do want to trade Franson, other teams have to at least see him play...)
- One of the things I like most about the Leafs’ approach so far this season is that they are going hard to the net more than I remember in recent years. When you keep driving to the net consistently, you create traffic and are apt to benefit from tip-ins and rebounds—and end up with more power plays, too.
- I want to believe it’s a mirage, but the Senators have a winning record and must be one of the best third-period comeback teams so far in this young NHL season. I did not expect them to be a good team. But they have some fine young players (including Karlson, who looks like an elite talent to me) and I ‘ll be the first to admit I was wrong if the Sens have a good season. One thing I will say: the expectations in Ottawa are so low, that the coach no doubt has the attention of the players. They can’t rely on superstars any more and need everyone digging deep every night.
Those of us who have followed professional sports for any length of time can’t help but notice that just as negatives often multiply, so do positives.
I’m never quite sure what comes first—playing better or feeling confident—but whichever it is, I will say this: when a hockey player (or any athlete, for that matter) is “feeling it” and playing well, he also seems to get the breaks along the way. When things go well, they go really well.
That seemed to be in evidence in Ottawa Sunday night when Phaneuf was scrambling with his back to the puck in the Leaf crease at one point and the Sens couldn’t get the puck over him for a goal. He “made the save” so we credit him with giving up his body to save a goal and he’s a hero.
If that puck doesn’t hit him and goes in, we’re probably wondering why he’s fishing around aimlessly on the ice and not knocking somebody down. And if he had been struggling so far this season, it would be one more thing to chalk up against him to make the claim that he's not playing well.
But the truth is, the way Phaneuf is playing through the first part of the season goes well beyond catching the odd break or two. He looks (and obviously feels) confident. He is moving into the play effortlessly—and often—on offense and not often getting burned at the other end. While he still make the occasional bad pass, he has shown the ability to make a great headlong pass to spring a streaking forward. He can dislodge guys from the puck with finesse or play a physical game when needed and just has an energy that you have to appreciate in any player.
And while he is logging an awful lot of ice time, he’s young (and in great shape) and can likely handle the workload, though it could be telling later in the season.
So is this the real Dion, as opposed to what we sometimes saw in his first year and a bit in Toronto?
I have to think it is. I’m a fan of a much larger sample size before we start (as Wilson did the other day) pronounce him as the best defenseman in the league. (In fairness, I believe Wilson said he was playing the best of any defenseman in the league right now…there is a subtle distinction.)
In truth, most of us don't (at least I will admit that I don’t) see enough of the other teams often enough to make a fair comparison with regard to how other top defensemen are playing. But I will say that the guy is performing awfully well, and I would be stunned if there was a single Leaf fan out there who expected him to play better than this. I would argue that what we are seeing is the absolute high end of what any of us could have hoped for.
Again, it’s early. We’re what, 11 games into the season? Lots of things can change, just like we are excited that Connolly is back and shows signs he could well pivot an elite first line here. But we need him to stay healthy for a prolonged before of time.
There are no guarantees. At the beginning of the season we assumed Schenn would pick up where he left off last season but so far that hasn’t happened. Everyone loved young Frattin out of training camp. While I’d like to see a “kid” line with either Bozak or Colborne between Kadri and Frattin, two of them are in the minors right now. And while I like Frattin, too, I wonder how long the Leafs will go if the kid can’t catch a break and start putting up some points.
My point is, things can change in a matter of a few games. So while I’m very impressed with Phaneuf right now and I do think we are seeing the “real” Dion, let’s give it a bit more time before there are any coronations.