We all have to guard against over-analyzing the first few games in this NHL season. Given that some of these guys haven’t played a game in earnest in months, and other have been playing but at lower levels, it makes sense that there will be some fits and starts to the season for most NHL teams. The Leafs will not likely be an exception.
Leaf followers knew that Saturday’s win in Montreal, while certainly not a mirage, came against a team with not much offense and weakened by the loss of one of their only “stars”—young defenseman P.K. Subban. The Leafs hung tough and were deserving of the win against the Habs, though we wouldn’t have wanted that game to last a lot longer.
After some entertaining ceremonial pre-game festivities Monday at the ACC, highlighted by the presence of Darryl Sittler, Felix Potvin, Darcy Tucker and 88 year-old Johnny Bower (Bower, shown in his playing days at right, was supposed to have been part of the old-timers game prior to the Winter Classic in Michigan a few weeks ago, had the silly lockout not cancelled the contest…), fans settled in for the home opener, looking forward to NHL hockey but also to a first-hand look at the new Leafs: Komarov, Kostka, van Riemsdk, McClement and Fraser.
Toronto was looking to build on their Saturday night victory and this one looked a lot like, well, a lot like early-season games the last few years under Ron Wilson. The Leafs fell behind early and made a late charge. Sometimes they came all the way back last year. Monday night, they almost did, but fell short.
There was lots of skating and plenty of scoring chances. Kessel couldn't find the net in the first two periods and came close again in the dying seconds. Toronto hit some posts. They had four power plays in succession in the first period. They moved the puck pretty well at times. The Sabres scored a bit of a funky one in the first period, and then added a marker in the second, after the Leafs had held a lot of the play.
Miller has not won at the ACC in a while, but he played very well. Sometimes you get the feeling early in the game that a goalie is feeling right, moving easily and anticipating the play very well. Miller seemed to have all that and more going for him against the Leafs.
When Kadri scored on the power play late in the third, the Leaf showed more energy and jump than they had most of the night. The Sabres were hanging on, having played on Sunday afternoon. The Leafs came close, but couldn't manage the equalizer.
Now, for what little it’s worth, I’m neither overly excited or unduly discouraged by anything I’ve seen in the first two games of the season. Some early observations, in no particular order:
- Scrivens has been fine. Not much extraordinary, not too much to make me yell out loud in frustration.
- Kostka remains an intriguing player. He gave up the puck mid-way through the third period under pressure in his own zone and the Sabres almost converted to make it 3-0. But he seems like one of those guys that just loves to play the game, and he does so with confidence, and even, I would dare say, a bit of flair. If he doesn’t get over-coached (and if people don’t start telling him ‘don’t do this and don’t do that’), he may be fine. You have to love how he flew through the air to try to prevent a puck he thought was going into the Leaf net in the third period. 27 minutes of ice team for a guy I thought was a "filler" signing? Who'd have thought...
- I’m not sure there is much difference between our second line (Grabbo, Kulemin and MacArthur) and our third line (Komarov, Kadri and van Riemsdyk). I would not be stunned of Carlyle switched van Riemsdyk and Kulemin going forward to try and get a bit more out of those two.
- I’m mildly concerned that Kulemin seems, I don't know, just not really there. He didn’t make much of an effort to cover the point (much less make an aggressive effort to block the shot) on Buffalo’s first goal, and was easily knocked off the puck by Vanek which led to the second Sabre goal. I thought Kulemin started moving his feet a bit better in the third period against the Sabres.
- Kessel looks like Kessel. Two assists in Montreal, good scoring chances against Buffalo. As I’ve said here the last few seasons, with Kessel, sometimes the puck just doesn’t go in the net. His effort is usually much the same.
- Phaneuf continues to play huge minutes, just as he did in the Wilson era. He broke up a number of dangerous rushes by the Sabres Monday night. Like last season, he has started the season well again.
- Kadri is dangerous on the power play. He should make his presence felt as he becomes accustomed to his teammates and the timing required to make the PP hum.
- Komarov has basically been as advertised.
- Bozak was much better on the faceoffs Monday night, and won a lot of key late draws in the third period when the Leafs were trying to tie the game.
- It’s a bit early to know how van Riemsdyk is settling in.
- Gunnarsson hasn’t been awful. Not sure he is at his best yet, not surprisingly. Gunner is usually the guy the Leafs want to settle down a defense partner who is struggling.
- I’m maybe missing something, but Grabovski has not been prominent, or even that noticeable to me so far. He usually stands out in Montreal and he’s been fairly quiet these first couple of games.
- Carlyle appears to be playing his fourth line precious little. Not surprisingly, McClement’s killing penalties, so Orr and Brown have mostly seen limited duty, but they can be effective on the forecheck.
- At least twice against Buffalo I noticed Kadri back and in very good position to make a key defensive play.
- The fact that Carlyle put Kadri on the ice as the extra man when Scrivens was pulled (after Kadri had just been on the ice) tells us that Carlyle sees Kadri—for now at least—as one of his more dangerous offensive performers. That Kadri drove to the net and scored on a rebound off the backboards on the faceoff after the ensuing Kaleta penalty was a bit of hockey justice.
Did Phaneuf, Kostka, Kadri, Bozak, Lupul and Kessel leave the ice in the last two plus minutes? Old time hockey, eh? Almost firewagon hockey. I liked to see that. No obsession with changing players after 30 seconds. They were playing on adrenaline.
Not much rest before Game 3 in Pittsburgh. Hope they get some sleep.