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.