I’m not sure the game against the Devils was a microcosm of the entire Leaf season so far, but there were some familiar occurrences: falling behind early, a nice second period rebound and an exciting flourish in the dying seconds to cap a second comeback on the night that netted least a sure point.
Along the way, we were treated to an uneven display of goaltending by Gustavsson. He was shaky early, then made some heart-stopping saves at various points in the third period to keep Leaf hopes alive. But then, in overtime, a head-scratcher against Monster gave the Devils the extra point, and left the Leafs wondering, no doubt, how fair the result was.
Now, before we pin this all on Gus or bemoan our bad luck, let’s keep in mind that the Devils played a pretty solid road game, eh? And, the Devils could have won in regulation if they had scored into the empty net. It wasn’t as though the Leafs played so splendidly that they absolutely deserved the win. They never led in the game.
For New Jersey, guys like Zubrus, a 33 year-old, 15-year veteran was diving to make plays on the back check, block shots and played an all-around industrious game. He was the classic “Devil” on the night, doing the little things that have made this team successful for the better part of twenty seasons—the team that Lou (Lamoriello) built and still bears his imprint.
I’ve long wondered aloud in this space how much sense the Kovalchuk trade and subsequent re-signing made and in many ways it still makes no sense for me, especially with an ownership with no money in the kitty. Not when you consider the immense size of the annual hit and the length of the deal. But, when motivated (and he looks motivated right now) Kovalchuk is so much fun to watch and is a big-time impact player.
That said, our concern is the Leafs. Yes, if Gardiner’s blast in overtime was an inch to the left, it’s two points for the good guys. But the bigger picture is this: the Leafs remain in the hunt for a playoff spot and have time to get their game to where it needs to be in the days ahead.
Here are a couple of points to mull over, as I lead into my question of the day:
- Yes, the goaltending has been discouraging a lot lately. Unless Gustavsson has a remarkable tail-end of the season, we have to believe he will be playing elsewhere next season. That’s likely better for him and the team—something I’ve suggested here for months.
- Does this mean the Leafs “need” a new goalie right now? I would argue no, but that may be a minority view. My long-term perspective is Reimer is still in their plans, and may well rebound, either this spring or next season. I don’t know whether any of Rynnas, Owuya or Scrivens will give us more than what we have right now. But I would not be surprised to see the Leafs sign a UFA goalie in the summer, much like Washington picked up Vokoun for a song last summer.
- I think there are several players who could be replaced right now and the Leafs wouldn’t miss a beat. Lombardi, Steckel, Connolly, Crabb/Boyce are all nice NHL players who bring something to the team, but if the Leafs want to compete in the playoffs, they need more than what they get most nights from those players. I don’t see anyone taking those guys in a trade, so it’s a moot point for this season. They already have Komisarek’s huge contract sitting in the press box many nights. (I don’t know what’s going on with Armstrong, but I have to believe he is hurting. …)
- Where is the important team toughness I’ve talked about here almost all season long? Oh sure, we see the occasional nice hit from Schenn and Phaneuf. Brown will play the body and we have guys like Grabbo who work hard and all that. But in terms of being hard to play against, in the Gary Robert-playoff sense, I just don’t see it. When we’re allowed to play wide-open hockey, we skate and fly all over the ice. As Kessel saw against Jersey, though, there isn’t a lot of space for “stars” when the other team is serious about shutting you down.
- I’m coming to the conclusion (not that any of us really has a clue what Burke will do…) that the Leafs want too much for their guys, and conversely, don’t want to pay what they see as too much to obtain a guy like Nash, etc. So we may do very little before the deadline. That said, small moves, like Boston picking up Peverley last season, can be difference-makers—sometimes as much or more than the big-name deals. But I hope, since we’re not moving Phaneuf and not willing (rightly so) to part with Gardiner, that Gunnarsson isn’t dealt. (I don’t think the answer for our often inconsistent defensive play is sending out the one guy I feel good about when he is on the ice. I found an article I posted here a long time ago, and reminded that me I’ve liked this player for a long time…)
Can the Leafs make the playoffs? Absolutely. The Caps have been mind-numbingly bad of late. The Jets are a “homer” kind of team. The Sens seem to have re-energized but remain a wild card in my mind and the Panthers may struggle down the stretch. There is ample opportunity for the Leafs to make the springtime festivities.
But here’s my question for you today: as Burke finishes (almost) four full seasons on the job, how important is making the playoffs for you, as a Leaf supporter?
I know we all want them to make the playoffs every year. But that’s a given. What I’m getting at is more this: given Burke’s proclamations over the years and the improvements that we have in fact seen, will it be “enough” for you if we make the playoffs but lose without much fanfare in the first round? What if we get close, but miss out by a point or day?
I doubt many people really believe the Leafs can win the Cup this year, though I still will maintain the Eastern Conference is far from decided. Funny things happen in the playoffs. But recognizing that a Leaf surge to the ultimate finish line is unlikely this time around, again I ask: for you, do the Leafs have to make the playoffs to give an indication that the team is heading in the right direction?
This is not a discussion about Burke’s future. It’s simply a discussion about what is “acceptable”. Is good effort enough? It is sufficient that the Leafs are entertaining most nights. Will you be satisfied if they are a playoff team next season—and likely the years beyond that? If we win one or two rounds in 2012-’13, will that be “enough” for you after Burke will have been on the job for five seasons?
What do you really need to see?
Let the discussion begin.