Some early promise in Chicago was betrayed by a sluggish middle frame and in the end, that one bad period was enough to send the Leafs to their tenth loss in the last 11 games.
The Hawks have been without their outstanding captain (Toews) for a while and you can see they’re not the same team without him. This should have been an opportunity for the Leafs to capitalize, especially against a struggling Crawford in the Hawk net. In fact, they did jump out early—and things looked good.
But a last-minute goal near the end of the first period seemed to give Chicago a confidence jolt. Perhaps sensing the Leafs were vulnerable, they put the pedal to the metal and ran around freely in the Leaf defensive zone through much of the second period.
I liked some of what we saw last night. Bozak played spirited game, and won a ton of huge draws in the last minute to give the Leafs a chance. Gus made some tough saves and Lupul was flying and creating much of the night. Kessel was dangerous at times, but Grabovski continues to be snakebit. And that is absolutely killing a second unit that has struggled too often this season, with Kulemin being almost a complete non-factor in the offensive zone—no matter how much we all try to prop up the notion of his good defensive play. (Reality is, there is more to the game than checking. Kulemin needs to hit a lot more, win a lot more battles and yes, score goals, to earn his paycheck. He simply hasn’t done it.)
I wasn’t a big fan of Gardiner’s night. The young rearguard is always a pleasure to watch, because he is so smooth and smart with the puck. But (and this was not even a playoff-intensity atmosphere) in a game that the Leafs had to win, and had a chance to win (and should have won, given the early lead), they were nowhere near strong enough on the puck, or hard enough on Chicago forwards in the Toronto zone. Gardiner was one of the culprits. As much as his skating can get him out of trouble, there are times he needs to use muscle and not just finesse, and on a few occasions last night, he was exposed, as he has been at various times this season.
It's just one game, but it’s an example of what I’ve expressed concern about when it comes to the Leafs and any potential playoff match-up. Gardiner has remarkable natural talent. He’ll be a wonderful player. But he is years away from having the experience (and strength) that will allow him to be the defenseman he can be.
Of course, our issues run far deeper than Gardiner’s occasional miscues in the defensive zone. We gave up too many chances again, and plenty of guys contributed to that stat across the line-up. The TV commentators (and I like Ray Ferraro) insisted the Leafs had the wrong line match-up against the Hossa line when that line scored twice in the second period. But you don’t hold the match-up cards on the road, and let’s be honest: exactly what Maple Leaf trio has been so good in their own zone in recent weeks, that we want them out there when Kane or Hossa are flying around in our zone?
I have to make one side-comment: Emery did his job in relief of Crawford, for sure. But did you notice that he spent an inordinate amount of time on his knees? There were times that he was down before the Leaf forward even had the puck on his stick to shoot. I only raise this because we, as fans (and TV commentators, too) have a tendency to say (whenever a goal goes in over a goalie’s shoulder) that “he went down to soon…”. Last night, Emery was down a lot, but because the Leafs couldn’t manage to get the puck up, no one said a word. Would Emery have played any worse in people's minds if, instead of hitting him, a couple of Leaf shots went in over his shoulder? Just a small irritant for me.
I really wanted to focus today on something I’m sure we all noticed, and that I really liked. I know Luke Schenn has struggled at times this season. This is on the heels of a strong 2010-’11 season, which itself followed a sometimes struggling sophomore season (after that impressive rookie year). But as I’ve said here many times before, Schenn is all of 22, plays tough, leads the team in hits, and is a guy who obviously cares.
Against the Hawks, he, without hesitation, went after Shaw when the young Hawk forward had kind of clipped Monster and knocked him off his feet, after a drive at the net. Then, later in the game, he fought with the annoying Bollig.
So here’s my point. In a season where we have seen our goalies ambushed, our captain hammered, and no one did a thing, Schenn did something. Despite regular public criticism, being a healthy scratch, being in play at the trade deadline, he comes out every night and plays hard. And on the road, he showed no fear in taking on the ‘chippiest’ Hawks. He only played about 15 minutes on the night but played tough.
In isolation, the stat may not always mean much, but he still is one of the top guys on the team at plus 5, not bad on a squad that now has given up more goals than it has scored this season.
We’re looking for positives. We’re looking for leadership. We all talk about our “young defense”. We gave up a guy I think will be a good one (Aulie). We can’t give away any more, no matter how much we want to be hopeful about who looks good on the Marlies. We need good young defensemen—and I think we have some. We have depth right now, but Liles has been fighting it a bit since his injury. Gardiner is still a rookie. Schenn is in his fourth year. Franson was just a healthy scratch. It takes time to become an accomplished, consistent, reliable NHL defenseman.
I often think back to long-time ‘80s and ‘90s Maple Leaf Todd Gill. He was much criticized early in his promising Leaf tenure, and some particularly memorable giveaways gave him a reputation as mistake-prone. But through sheer determination, Gill became an accomplished defenseman for the blue and white. He was an important part of those wonderful 1993 and ’94 playoff teams. But you know what I remember most about Gill? This guy was a true Leaf. He bled blue and white. He was, in hockey terms, a warrior. Not a big defenseman, size-wise, but he played big. He was rugged—was loyal.
And importantly, over time, he was a steady blueliner. But the key point is “over time”.
At a time when we can easily hang our heads, it’s perhaps important to project what might be. And for me, Schenn is a future captain. A flawed player right now, but when you have already played close to 300 NHL games at the age of 22, I wouldn’t be too quick to unload a guy with a heart that big.
Skill matters, of course. But you win with skill, determination, smarts, toughness—and heart.
And whatever “skill” we add in the months and seasons ahead, we will need all the heart we can muster, if we hope to build a true championship team.