But this is what I have been saying here for the last few seasons. The Eastern Conference is, well, awfully mediocre. There are a lot of outstanding players, but not really many what I would call elite teams. And it’s been this way going back many seasons, actually. I’ve been writing about NHL parity for what feels like a long time.
The difference in a club's success compared with another team can be discipline, good coaching, line match-ups, a hot goaltender- all kinds of things large and small, subtle or obvious. Now, you might say, those things are always important—and they are. But my point is that there are two, maybe three teams in the East that you would probably say, on paper, are out of the Leafs’ league, as it were. I keep saying it because it’s true: most of the East is made up of teams that can be beat, have roster flaws and are not that deep. Are there any teams that the Leafs really can’t compete with?
I think you know I am not a guy who has flights of delusional Leaf fantasy. I've seen too many false starts and unmet expectations over the past forty-five years. I’m not pretending they are suddenly a world-class team. But they are playing with an edge and even on nights when they lack jump, they aren’t seeing a lot of push back from opposing teams. Are they suddenly that good, or is the competition simply not that what we thought it would be?
Hey, maybe the Sabres will turn it around under a new coach. But you usually see a surge in energy right away when a team changes coaches, and it just wasn’t there at the ACC on Thursday night. The Sabres were listless, for the most part. (What’s happened to Tyler Myers?) Beyond Buffalo, the Islanders are lacking in a lot of ways, as are the Panthers, Capitals and Jets. I don’t see Tampa as a lock for the playoffs, nor is Montreal (though they have been hot) and the Flyers have clearly underwhelmed their fans so far this season.
The playoffs are right there, if the Leafs play like they have so far this season.
Against the Sabres, van Riemsdyk scored twice from basically the edge of the crease, one on a lovely set-up from Kessel when it looked like Kessel was going to shoot, then another beauty pass cross-ice from Franson on a five-on-three to salt the game away in the third period. That said, his most impressive moment may have been killing a penalty in the second period when he skated from the blueline in and around the Sabres net, took the puck back outside the blueline and made another rush and almost scored as the Sabres stood around, seemingly frozen. (The Sabres sure looked like one lazy team, didn’t they?) You don’t see what van Riemsdyk did on that play often.
When John Scott tried to motivate the Sabres in the third period through fisticuffs, MacLaren went to-to-toe with the Sabre behemoth. Scott’s teammates were clearly not inspired by the fight.
That exchange, however, kind of epitomized the Leafs’ season to this point. Between Orr, Fraser, Brown and MacLaren, passive Eastern Conference teams don’t much seem to want to go to the danger zones very often, and the Leafs are benefitting.
Komarov is part of that new emphasis on physicality, as it McClement, mostly by simply finishing their checks. While there are a lot of familiar faces in a Leaf lineup that hasn’t been very good these last few seasons, Kadri, Bozak, Kessel and Grabovski can skate a little freer now and Phaneuf doesn’t have to fight all his own battles while everyone else stands around and offers no help.
Speaking of Phaneuf, can fans (I know, I know, it’s Dion himself, or at least the influence of his coaches…) take credit for his renewed offensive productivity of late? How often were fans—and rightfully so—carping that the captain was taking blazing slapshots from the point that were nowhere near the net, night after night. Yet, starting about half a dozen games ago, it’s almost like he had been watching Cody Franson and realized, “hey, I don’t have to blast it all the time.” When he shoots now, he usually tries to keep it low, so it gets to the net or so one of his teammates might at least be able to deflect the shot. Against the Sabres, he scored because the shot was on the money, not five feet wide or ten feet over the net. (I think he now has points in five of his last six games…)
I apologize for my lack of fresh ideas as to why the Leafs are “winning”. But this Leaf team looks the same virtually every night. The goalies make most of the stops; the defense clears the front of the net; they move the puck with short, smart passes to clear the zone and when they are on the attack, they let their skill guys work, while their energy guys and tougher forwards make a path to the net.
Pretty basic. But effective.
I don’t know what else to say. It’s not always exciting (certainly not like the Penguin/Flyer game from a couple of nights ago) but we’ve seen that movie and it turned out badly for us.
So my guess is most Leaf fans will take this: smart, solid play with a physical edge. Suddenly, we’re a team no one wants to play against.
If the goaltending holds up….I’ll stop there.