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The Leaf game against the Sabres means nothing, but something

The natural inclination is to look at the positives that were so evident in the Maple Leaf overtime loss in Buffalo on Tuesday night, and wonder, “where was that when we needed it a few weeks ago”?  It’s a fair question.  But the performance doesn’t have to be thrown out completely just because it came in a “meaningless” late-season game with nothing on the line for the blue and white.

Late-season games between playoff-bound teams (or those still scrambling for an elusive spot in the springtime dance) and also-rans are complicated.  Look at what else was happening Tuesday night around the league.  Ottawa was at home, but they had just clinched their playoff spot.  Were they kind of celebrating early?  The Hurricanes walked into town with little to play for, but they beat Ottawa, 2-1.

Florida had a chance to clinch their first playoff spot in….seemingly forever.  They grabbed a 3-0 lead against a Jets team that had just been knocked out of the playoff picture themselves a couple of days ago.  But before you knew it, it was 3-3.  The Panthers then had to come from behind just to send the game into overtime, whereupon they lost the critical “extra” point. It’s not easy playing with a lead, with a lot on the line, eh? The mental and emotional aspect of these games is awfully tough.  (I agree with something long-time NHL’er Ray Ferraro said in an interview I heard earlier in the day.  He said every NHL player has courage.  Just to get to and play at that level, he basically said, is so tough.  We, as fans, would be wrong to say any of these players don’t have guts or heart.  And that’s fair.  He added that it’s just that some guys are even more courageous than others—those individuals who take the hits, block the shots, etc. to make those little but hard plays, who make that extra effort, to help their team succeed…)

For their part, the Leafs looked home and cooled out, but couldn’t quite hang on after leading 3-0, and 5-3 against a Sabre team that ultimately won, yes, but looked awfully poor at times doing it.  The Sabres had everything to play for while the Leafs are playing out the year. (By the way, did you ever see a longer goalmouth scramble than the one  that led to Buffalo’s tying goal in the dying minutes?) 

So credit to the Leafs, on the one hand.  A lot of them played hard.  They had to work hard.  Ashton didn’t really play (neither did Rosehill, except for a fight) and Gunnarsson was hurt early after being hammered by Marcus Foligno.  They were essentially playing three men short.  (It was an odd game, statistically.  The Sabres scored three of their six goals on the power-play, the Leafs scored none.  Yet only one Leaf was a “minus” player on the night.  Unusual.)

Bozak was buzzing around early and had three points before the first period was even over.  (I hadn’t noticed him much recently until this game.  Maybe I just haven’t been paying close attention.  Or maybe, like most of his teammates, Bozak's play has kind of slid toward mediocre. Many of the Leafs have seemed largely invisible through the better part of the last two months.)

Kessel seemed to have his skating shoes on as well, assisting on all three first-period markers and just missing scoring a couple himself later in the contest.  Kessel’s good work all triggered the usual reaction in Leafland via Twitter, which I largely understand.  When he scores or makes slick plays and the Leafs win, we trumpet the genius of acquiring him.  We laud his play and keep mentioning that he has been in the top 5 in NHL scoring most of the season.

When the puck doesn’t go in for him (or for his linemates when he sets them up), or he looks listless on the backcheck at times, we wonder if he will ever be more than he seems: a highly-skilled, exciting player to watch, but not a guy who thrives when the checking is tight come springtime.

Scrivens played well early, but things got scrambly, wouldn’t you say, for him and his teammates as the game went on?  Gardiner had some harrowing moments in his own zone, but scored a beauty of a goal in the third.  It seemed at times as though we were watching an extended four-on-four overtime session.  The Leafs had some jump early—and late.  Frattin scored again and was dangerous much of the night.  He also went toe to toe with Foligno after the young Sabre winger had run over Bozak.

Yes, there were plenty of nice little things present in their game, so while I don’t discount the good we all saw, it is difficult to get too excited by a near-victory that, like the win Saturday night against these same Sabres, provides only temporary solace after a disappointing several weeks for the hockey club.

And this is the frustrating thing.  No one is suggesting the Leafs are a star-studded team, or one that outworks their opponent every night, or plays flawless defense.  But we have seen at various points this season that, in a league with a lot of parity, that when they skate, when they have some jump, when they move the puck smartly and play hard, they can compete most nights against most teams- and can even be hard to play against some nights.

They have not proven they can play consistently with the big boys in the East, but as we’ve said here before, they are better than they have looked since February.

(Side note: if anyone looked longingly at Marcus Foligno, son of former Wing, Sabre and Maple Leaf Mike Foligno, and thought, boy, we could sure use a tough young winger like that…well, we had our shot in the 2009 draft.   We didn’t pick him.  I think he went in something like the fourth round to the Sabres.)

This must be a frustrating time for the Leaf players.  They are playing for a new coach.  They know the fan base wanted playoff hockey.  They are playing out the season with as much emotion as they can muster.  But earning a point in overtime must feel a bit like, well, just another loss in a season that was lost, somehow, long ago.


  1. It looked like a microcosm of the season to me. Strong start, slacking off but hanging in, then just blowing it.
    I suppose we should look for positives, but when a team looks this bad, I can't muster the energy. This season can't end fast enough for me, and I see precious little to make me look forward to next year.
    I asked myself the very question you mention, Michael, about Marcus Foligno. We don't have one guy with the physical presence he showed tonight, and we've never seen the kind of determination the Sabres showed when the game looked lost.
    I took a quick look at the Rangers/Flyers game, and the Pens/Bruins game as well. As you mentioned the other day, we're nowhere close to the level these teams play at. And as long as Leaf fans are encouraged to cheer the mediocre, and management sets the bar so low for success that there is simply no incentive to really deliver a championship team - all press conference bluster aside - we can expect many more years of flailing about in the hockey wilderness.
    I don't see why any of us should be in a forgiving mood this year. I'm tired of looking for the faint glimmers. The outlook is bleak when we're pinning our hopes on Marlies call ups, not one of whom has really made a strong impression. Ugh.

  2. You're right, Gerund O'...the bar here is very low. And when that's the case, it takes very little to satisfy. But we're so far away right now, we can't even see where we really need to be.


  3. This didn't hurt as much as it was unbelievable. Events conspired against the Leafs to lose that game. I would be really, really upset if it actually had meant something to the Leafs season last night.

    Losses like the 5-0 against Montreal, the drubbings at the hands of the Bruins and Flyers in which the team didn't "show up" hurt a lot worse then the game last night. I take solace in the fact that we were missing our 1st line winger, 2 thirds of our 2nd line, our starting and back-up goaltender (for whatever that's worth), our best defender for most of the game, and we weren't exactly icing the best replacements possible. This against a team whose season was on the line, while the Leafs are just playing out the string.

    If the full roster consistantly showed effort like this, and we even received 0.910 goaltending we'd be in the playoffs.

  4. I was at the game last night and found it thoroughly entertaining (refereeing aside). This was a game where the Bozak line dominated for the Leafs and the Ennis line dominated for the Sabres. Kudos to Matt Frattin for some stellar play and for sticking up for his teammate against a much bigger opponent.

    The defence was loose and mistake prone as usual. Gardiner scored a beautiful goal but is still too easily outmuscled in his own end. Komisarek threw some big hits but he seems to give up sound positioning for the chance of making a big hit. He was paired with Phaneuf after Gunnarson was hurt and they had a shaky game at best. Until the defence is stabilized this team will lose more games than they win.

    I do commend the Leafs for their effort. A couple of very questionable calls around the Leaf net and a bonehead play(s) by Phaneuf led to their defeat but they did exxhibit grit and talent.

    Attending a Leaf game in Buffalo is always fun. There are always a few thousand Leaf fans in attendance and the Buffalo fans are for the most part cordial.

  5. Well said Alex...most of the guys played hard, at least. They probably deserved better, for what it's worth....Thanks.

  6. Glad to get a report from someone who was at the game, Pete Cam. It always provides something extra that we can't quite catch at home, not to mention enjoying (as you did) the mood of the crowd. Buffalo games always provide something a little extra, it seems, for Leaf fans who make the short trek.

    I'm with you on Frattin. I think he has a nice ceiling. Whenever we lose Gunnarsson, I always feel like we just won't be as good most nights in our own zone.

    I noted the same things you did with regards to Gardiner. Impressive goal, for sure, but too many instances when his play in our zone was exposed again. And that's the way things may well be when the Leafs get to the playoffs and teams play with that kind of determination. You just don't have the time and space a lot of the time (though Buffalo sure made their share of mistakes in their zone, Turnovers are often the result.

    Thanks for sharing your observations Pete Cam. Great stuff.

  7. They got me again last night. I had officially joined Tank Nation but midway through the first period I had the fist pumps going and wanted nothing more than to erase Buffalo from playoff contention. I even jumped from the couch when Gardiner scored, something that I have seldom done as of late.
    Then of course they did the worst thing possible, lose the game but get a point.
    It was really nice to see them skating again, Kessel was on fire and Bozak was a fight away from a Gordie Howe hat trick. :)
    The refereeing was awful, the Leafs we penalized 5 times to 1 for Buffalo. Several blatant penalties went uncalled. And what can I say about the scramble in front of the net? For safety reasons alone that should have been blown dead. 99.9 times out of a hundred that goal never happens.
    Very entertaining night.

  8. That made me smile when you said, "they got me again..." cbh747. It's so true. When they skate and play with energy, they can be a handful, as they were many nights earlier in the season.

    It was entertaining, for sure....

    I think the reality is Leaf fans need a break, just like the players. The games don't mean anything, really, so it's time to step back, decompress, and for management to plan their next steps...