The Leaf-Ottawa game was probably a lot closer to what I (and many observers) expected at the outset of the current season. We anticipated that the Leafs would be better, and they generally have been. As we keep saying, they're younger, faster and deeper.
At the beginning of the season I thought the Sens would be awful, and might be lucky to win 15 games. I saw a team with little goaltending, an aging leader in Alfredsson, a veteran star who was good but not great (Spezza) and a lot of unproven kids. I figured General Manager Murray, if anything, had taken the team backwards. But I was proven dreadfully wrong through their play in the first 40 plus games this season. The Sens were often hard to play against, came from behind regularly and as they adjusted to yet another new coach, were energetic most nights. They have been a real team, rather than what they used to be—a collection of individual stars who tended to fade somewhat when the going got tough.
Now, I have no idea if the Sens’ current swoon is temporary, or whether they have finally hit the expected ceiling and will struggle through the rest of the season and settle into a non-playoff spot in the standings. But it doesn’t much concern me, other than the impact their future performance could potentially have on the Leafs. I had identified Ottawa in a couple of recent posts as a team that I expected to fall back and falter, but one that, based on their hard-working success, would be there with the Devils, Panthers and Leafs vying for the last couple of playoff spots.
Most teams go through a period of a week or two where they can’t win and struggle to pick up points, and then get hot and seem unbeatable. So the Sens could go either way from here. We’ll see.
But when it comes to the Leafs, I—like all of you, I’m sure—detected a number of reasons why the Leafs hammered the over-matched (at least on this night) Senators and why the Leafs are on a roll right now. (Admittedly, not all these qualities were in evidence during the recent mini-skid that preceded the current five-game point run.) I’ll just make one comment before the breakdown that follows: I thought the Leafs set the tone when they killed off the first two penalties in the game. From there it was point, set, match, with Kessel and company running the show at one end, Reimer at the other.
- An “activated” defense—this has been on the Wilson “must do” list for some time, and many nights, it’s bearing fruit. There have been occasions in recent games, and at different points this season, when the Leafs are overwhelming the opposition in part because their defensemen join the attack either off the initial rush and/or from the point when opportunities arise (and even sometimes even when they don’t…and then it’s a mad rush back to their own zone). But this approach opens up lanes that aren’t usually there to move the puck and get quality shots, sometimes from unexpected places in the offensive zone.
- Phaneuf—Dion has been mostly the “good” Dion this season, and that has certainly been in evidence of late again. He provides timely physical play, but not over-doing it. He’s part of the activated defense. Still has the big shot. And he brings energy to a team that needs to be inspired sometimes. He may be (and this may be the first time I’ve said this since he arrived now more than two years ago) the most valuable Leaf player right now. Who else plays the minutes he does every night? He’s not flawless, for sure, but he’s playing smart most of the time and when he’s good, we should give him his due.
- Kessel and Lupul—These two guys, let’s face it, have carried the team offensively this season. If you’re one of the people that expected exactly this from Lupul, you deserve a gold star. I certainly did not. As for Kessel, when pressed in the Globe & Mail podcast before this current season started, I (as a guy who loathes predictions, generally speaking—they’re fun but that’s about it…) think I mumbled something about 33 goals. I had no sense that he would break out as he has. He has been more consistent than last season, in terms of “productivity”. (Sometimes last year he played well, but the puck wouldn’t go in for him…) Lupul, like Kessel, has gone through periods when, partly because of their intense focus on creating scoring chances, they have given up too many goals against. But we can’t deny Lupul has been anything other than astounding. They both have been.
- I want to add one little nuance about Kessel. I mentioned it a few weeks ago, but I think it’s another small element in his continued maturation. When he is at his free-wheeling best (which is most nights this season), he uses the full ice-surface. He’s not afraid to make rushes from his off-wing. He is able to isolate himself against a defenseman who is not expecting to take him on and his speed and ability to release while cutting into the middle on his forehand make him tough to defend. He showed a bit of that on the game’s first goal Saturday night against Ottawa.
- Two goalies that can win—Hey, I posted here a few weeks ago that the Leafs should set The Monster free, and then that Leaf fans needed to realize that Reimer was the anointed one—and that that wasn’t going to change. Almost from the moment the second column ran, Gus went on a mini-roll and played strongly, re-claiming the team’s confidence and as importantly, quite likely his own. I still believe Reimer is “the guy” in the minds of Wilson and Burke, but regardless, just like you need to be ten-deep on defense if you want to be a serious threat come playoff time, I’m a fan of having two guys that the team believes in, in goal. The Leafs should have that now.
- Penalty-killing—There, I said it. For a team that seemed almost incapable of going an entire game without allowing a power play goal in the first three months of the season, how many have they allowed since the new year? It goes without saying that this is huge for any team, and it’s been huge for the Leafs in recent weeks. If this continues, it can be just as crucial down the stretch, and of course, in the playoffs.
- Discipline—It’s hard to miss that not only is the Leaf penalty-killing markedly improved of late, but the team is not taking needless penalties and that helps in several ways. The lines are not messed up all night. Everyone gets their ice time and stays fresh. There are fewer penalties to kill. It’s easier on your goaltenders. You get the point. And going into the playoffs playoff, beyond the intensity that you would expect of any teams competing for the Cup, you need goaltending—and discipline.
- Long passes—This season, the Leafs have created what I call “sudden offense”. That is, because their forwards are on the move and anticipating and not standing still all the time, the defensemen (or fellow forwards) are often finding teammates flying into open space. It happened Saturday night when Kessel found Bozak with a great breakout pass which resulted in a goal. How many times have we seen a seemingly nothing moment turn into a sudden scoring chance? A lot. I know it’s the era of the so-called “stretch pass” but the Leafs have it down almost to an art form some nights.
- Jake Gardiner—I know people were saying Gardiner “looked tired” before he was briefey sitting upstairs for a few games and played a game with the Marlies in mid-season. But whether he was hitting the former-college player “rookie wall” or not, this cool customer rarely looks fatigued on the ice in a league where most guys are spent after a 30-second shift, despite being in fantastic shape. His effortless skating just makes him look like, if necessary, he could play 40 minutes a night.
- John-Michael Liles—The Leaf power-play seemed to struggle more when Liles was missing because of injury. The guy has a knack for getting to open spaces and moving the puck quickly and smartly. He makes the power-play better, full stop.
- Speed—I’ve tried to forewarn us all that as the season moves along things will get tougher for the Leafs—especially so in the playoffs, when checking can be suffocating and space just isn’t there like it is in November, for example. But it’s shocking some nights just how much Toronto’s speed overwhelms the opposition. Defenders look noticeably anxious when the Leafs are flying up the ice and making precision passes at high-speed. While finding space should be harder to find come spring, speed—if you use it well—can certainly counteract a lot of things.
- Solid young defense corps—The current “top six” on the blueline are not perfect but generally solid. Liles is the “greybeard” at what, 31? Phaneuf plays big minutes, Gardiner rarely looks like a “rookie”. Gunnarsson for me is the most reliable guy we have a lot of the time and Franson has gone from early-season healthy scratch to significant contributor most nights. Heck, Schenn is the whipping boy and he’s all of 22. A lot of contending teams might like to have Komisarek down the stretch (if it weren't for his contract), and depending on injuries he may not even be in our line-up come April. Aulie still shows promise, despite some issues that surface at times. And there’s more on the way with the Marlies.
- Kulemin—I won't try to argue that Kulemin (one of my favorites) is having a good season. I hear the “Leafs TV” commentators trying valiantly to pump his tires. And yes, he does play some defense and we see the occasional big hit, but let’s be honest, 5 goals, or whatever it is, is not what management (or we fans) was/were expecting. But my point here is: I’m guessing the guy is simply having an off-year. It happens. He may be a guy we need—and who comes through big time—a year from now. That said, I’d like to see him be physical a bit more consistently.
- Schenn—He’s part of the aforementioned youthful defense corps, or course. Will he be traded? I don't know. But I had a nice exchange with someone on Twitter yesterday and we reminded each other how the Leafs gave up way too soon on a young Randy Carlyle in the late 1970s. And Carlyle went on to a fine NHL career—including a Norris Trophy. I‘m not suggesting Luke will win a Norris, but I’m not sure he’s as limited a player as some are saying these days. Everyone has flaws. Scott Stevens wasn’t the fastest or smoothest defensemen. But playing in the right “system”, one that allows him to excel, could make a world of difference. Whether that can happen in Toronto, I’m not sure.
- Finally, the Eastern Conference (this is a recording) is just not that strong. I’m not sure even the Bruins can’t be had. I don’t think there is a team in the East that the Leafs can’t compete with right now—and, at their best, in the playoffs, too.
If ever there was a likelihood that the Sens would snap out of their funk (and yes, they had played the night before; the Leafs have certainly had some very favorable scheduling of late…), you would have thought Saturday night was the night. They were at home, taking on the hated Leafs. Anderson had been good against Toronto this season. The Senators were “due”. The Leafs were probably feeling a little heady after a great two-game set against the Penguins. But when the game started, it was all Leafs and things never really shifted out of that mode.
Here comes Edmonton.