I’m being tongue-in-cheek when I make reference to the Leafs needing to do a bit more work under Carlyle on their new “defensive” system. Tongue-in-cheek because, as I have posted recently, most of us would agree that any “early days” observations of how a team plays under a new coach—especially in-season—should be measured. As in, let’s not make any grand assessments, good or bad, too soon.
Case in point, it’s easy to watch a team win as the Leafs did against a weak Montreal team on Saturday and think we have witnessed a sudden turnaround in, for example, defensive consciousness—when what we may really be seeing is simply adrenaline flowing in their first game for a new coach with a hard-ass reputation, against mediocre opposition.
Similarly, a loss against the Bruins deserves not much more time under the microscope. We have to understand that it will be well into next season before we see (if any) the true fruits of the Carlyle approach. That doesn’t mean I’m suggesting the Leafs won’t play every well the rest of this season under the former Anaheim coach (I’m guessing they will)—simply that a lot of that will be a mirage, a short-term uptick caused by the urgency of the current situation and, again, the reality of a new set of eyes making assessments of Maple Leaf players who may be on the bubble to make this team next fall.
So when we assess how the Leafs did in their 5-4 loss, we should keep in mind that, broadly speaking, they are keen to impress the new guy and are also still adjusting to a new system of play. On the surface, I’m guessing 5 goals against (all, importantly, at even strength, which tells us something) is not exactly what Carlyle and his coaching staff have in mind for the Leafs most nights, but it’s very early in his tenure—too early to be either excited or discouraged.
That said, Tuesday night’s game against the Bruins set up perfectly for the Leafs. They were coming off a huge slide-breaking (and pressure relieving) win in Montreal on the weekend. They had two days of good practice time under the new coach. No travel to worry about. They were at home. They were healthy. And they were hosting a Boston team that was injury-riddled (Ference, Horton, Peverley and Rask among the key guys out; we don’t even think about Savard anymore…) and not playing very well of late.
Importantly, Tim Thomas has not been his outstanding self, either, and in truth, he wasn’t great against the Leafs. It would/should have been the night to take advantage of the Bruins when they were off their game, and when Thomas was not unbeatable. And the Leafs did have their moments. Kessel scored against his old team, something that hasn’t happened much since joining the Leafs. Grabbo (on the night he signed his new five-year contract with the blue and white) flashed that little smile after MacArthur’s outstanding “sudden offense” pass sprung him for the marker that brought the Leafs within one late in the third period. Too, the Leafs tried to stand up to the Bruins physically. Heck, Connolly woke up Leafworld with a wrestling throw-down on Marchand, one of the hated Bruins (there are a lot of them, eh?).
While Gardiner struggled at times, he looked like he was shot out of the proverbial canon while the Leafs were killing a penalty at one point and almost created a short-handed goal for Kulemin. He should only get better.
But while the Leafs had their chances, including an abbreviated last-second 6 on 4 man advantage, it wasn’t enough as they missed a golden opportunity to knock off the defending Cup champs.
Some will blame Gustavsson for the goals against, but while he obviously wasn’t perfect, he made some nice saves at various points, including while the Leafs were working to cut the lead in the third period. Our defensive coverage wasn’t exactly flawless. And Lucic alone missed two glorious chances in the third, an empty net staring back at him on both occasions. But the Leafs had opportunities, too. It was that kind of game—not the sort of contest that coaches generally like to see, especially with the playoffs around the corner.
It will be interesting to see Carlyle’s line-up from here on out. Does Komisarek stay in, as a physical defensive defenseman? And what about Schenn, who, like Komisarek, was also a minus 2 on the night against the Bruins? I’m not sure what Franson has done to earn a seat in the press box, but it’s better to have too many defensemen than not enough.
In-game injuries to Armstrong and Lupul may complicate things a touch (as I write this I don’t know what their status is), though Brown and Crabb could draw back in against the Penguins Wednesday night if Brown's hand has healed. If not, and Armstrong and Lupul can’t go, then presumably we’ll see Colborne or Kadri in the line-up against the Pens.
It was a night to be hopeful going in, and there are things to be hopeful about going forward. The East remains a real wild-card right now. A three-game winning streak and the Leafs are right back in the driver’s seat. That’s not to create false expectations, simply a reflection of how the Conference has been most of this season. Things should go down to the wire.
Regardless, you get the feeling that, throughout the rest of this season, both Burke and Carlyle will have one eye on the ice and one eye on next season as they assess what they have—and what they need.