It wasn’t too difficult to find positives on the Leaf side of the ledger on Tuesday night in Tampa Bay. They were full measure for their win, doing the little things you have to do to win on the road.
Tampa’s vaunted (maybe “vaunted” is too strong a word…”despised by many” may be more accurate) 1-3-1 or whatever it is was not much use once the Leafs grabbed a two-goal lead. The Lightning, when you actually look at their roster and get past Stamkos, Lecavalier and St. Louis, aren’t that talented. Like most teams in the cap era, they are front-loaded with a few elite guys but the rest of the roster up front is made up of a lot of third/fourth-liners. (You would think a team with Brewer and Hedman on the back line would be better defensively than Tampa looked against the Leafs.) A year ago, they had the coach of the year and things looked rosy. Right now, not so much.
But all in all, it was a noteworthy win for the Leafs. And importantly, it gives them a boost in the Eastern Conference standings.
The positives I mentioned? Here goes:
- Speed. It’s always a bit difficult to tell if the other team having an off night is a big part of it, but the Leafs looked fast—very fast. They had little trouble driving through the neutral zone and seemed to be able to hit the opposing blueline with tons of speed. Tampa was flat and had no answer.
- The Monster gave up the requisite early goal the Leafs seem to allow, but as he and Scrivens (and Reimer so often before them) have done lately, he slammed the door when it mattered as the Leafs built their lead. This is not to suggest Gustavsson is the answer—long-term I sense that, as I have posted here before, his future is elsewhere—but if he plays well, it’s a huge bonus for the team when Reimer returns.
- MacArthur scored in his first game back from injury. Hey, it was not exactly Crosby-esque, but for Leaf fans, almost as good. He’s a guy that can look ordinary many nights, but in Toronto, he has produced offense on the second line, and if he can deliver that, he can be a very valuable contributor down the stretch.
- The Leaf blueline looks as mobile as any set of Leaf defensemen in recent memory. Liles and Gardiner have wheels. Franson can skate, too, and Phaneuf and Gunnarsson are more than mobile enough. Wilson has been stressing “activating the ‘d’ ” this season and most nights, the defense corps is delivering in spades. I think four defensemen earned assists for the Leafs against Tampa.
- Speaking of the blueline, did you like Franson knocking Stamkos on his duff at the corner of the Leaf crease late in the second period? Franson wasn’t worried about the puck, only about making sure Stamkos could not put home a rebound from the doorstep. I loved seeing that, and he is a guy with a reputation of being a bit soft, defensively. Great to see. Within seconds of that play, the Leafs made it 4-1.
- Joe Colborne scored his first. I think we can agree that he will score many nicer goals in his career with the Leafs, but it was a big one, and should ease any anxiety he may have felt about potting that first one at this level.
- Frattin’s speed—and a quick-thinking and very slick back pass—set up Colborne’s tally, another good sign for the young ex-collegiate winger whose confidence should only grow from here. He also showed a burst when he drove past Hedman late in the game to set up Crabb’s goal. Points aren’t always necessary when you bring other elements to your game, as Frattin does, but it sure helps.
- I’m stating the obvious (and how long will this last?) but the Leaf power-play, for a variety of reasons, has been on its toes and producing the last while. And we all know that is a massive boost to a club that, just a week ago, was quietly wondering where the goals were going to come from once you got past Lupul and Kessel.
- Connolly has been impressive. 3 points in any game is something, but especially so on the road. As importantly, he is playing a smart game all over the ice. I posted here after the summer-signing that Buffalo management (and fans and media there, too) were seemingly un-concerned about his departure. A combination of injuries and indifferent play at times made him a lightning rod for fan unhappiness in Buffalo but he has been a difference-maker so far in Toronto.
- Those who visit here on a fairly regular basis will know that I have “defended” Bozak on a pretty regular basis over the past year. He was miscast as a first-line pivot a year ago and often struggled. But we can all see the speed and his ability in the face-off dot. And the young man has undeniable talent. He sees the ice very well, makes some sweet passes and now is beginning to finish. His career arc may just jump if that sometimes elusive athlete’s confidence continues to grow. (Is it premature to wonder if he could some day become a first-line centre?)
- Not insignificantly, they beat a team that finished well ahead of them in the standings last season, and the Leafs won on the road. We can’t forget to stress that while Roloson has absolutely killed the Leafs in recent years, he had no answer for them before being chased from his cage in the third period in this one.
- As the TV broadcast mentioned, the Leafs iced the youngest team in the NHL against Tampa, at an average of 26.4 years. This can't be anything but good.
And yes, the Leafs haven’t had an answer for the Bruins yet, and Boston is indeed hot right now. But really, it’s s short list of top-end teams. There is no reason to believe that the Leafs aren’t in the mix with the Rangers, Buffalo, Jersey, Montreal, etc.
I’ll even say this: right now, the Leafs should fear no team. There is no club, if they played in a playoff series right now, that the Leafs can’t skate with—and play with. I’m not suggesting they would beat every team in the East in a playoff series. Heck, we’re not even sure they will make the playoffs. But every time this team slides, we continue to see signs that tell me that this year is different, that this team is more versatile, more able to rebound from adversity. They will have their tough times, for sure, but we know they can bounce back.
On to Dallas.