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Little things mattered in a 1-0 Leaf loss against the Bruins

I have zero complaints about the Leaf loss at home to the Bruins on Saturday night.  None.  They fell a bit short against a team that has been a powerhouse in recent seasons and while they didn't do enough to win, they distinguished themselves by playing hard all night.

But you know what I was really focusing on during the Leaf-Bruin game Saturday night?  Not the big rivalry, who needed to win more, the potential for fisticuffs or whether the Leafs could “stand up” to the Bruins after last season’s debacles. While that was all part of the backdrop for me, as I’m sure it was for many Leaf fans, I was more attuned to the thousand and one little things that are the difference in a close NHL contest.

Win or lose, on any given night, NHL’ers make a range of subtle but crucially important plays—and at unbelievably high speed.  Unless they lead to a goal at any given time, we tend, as fans, to forget about those ‘crucial-at-the-time’ individual moments and move on to the next play.  And at this level, the next important moment usually happens a split-second later.  The whole game is often made up of simple plays that suddenly transition the other way for a dangerous shot on net, as well as battles for puck possession in the corners and players looking for any inch they can grab in front of both goals.  Smart plays, blocked shots, plays made under duress, goalposts, great saves, lucky saves, subtle chips to clear the zone at key times, big hits.  It’s really, in many ways, quite remarkable how one thing affects every thing else in a hockey game.

Looking at the Leafs against the Bruins, every single player, it seemed, did something notable at one time or another.  There was no room for floaters.  Fraser fought twice.  Komisarek made a great sliding move to break up a key two-on-one for the Bruins late in the second.  Kessel was flying around, on his off wing at times as he hustled to get away from that six foot eight Boston defensemen.  (He hit the crossbar—again.) Reimer made some superb saves to keep it 1-0 most of the night, including two on McQuaid at one point.  33 saves on 34 shots, well, we’ll take that any night.

Steckel made a neat little move to break by a defenseman and almost score at one point, showing offensive skills that we usually don’t associate with him.  Kostka was on the ice killing a penalty effectively while his defense partner, Phaneuf was in the box (so Carlyle doesn’t see the 27 year-old rookie as reliant on the captain, obviously).

Colton Orr threw a big body check on Chara.  Komarov played with an edge and hit whoever he could reach.  Kadri showed creativity and smarts.  There was that dive by Liles to stop a potential breakaway in the third period.

Every Leaf player made a contribution in a close game.

On the Bruin side, they do a lot of the little things well most nights.  Bergeron is such an important presence for them, such a smart player.  One-time Leaf draft choice Rask was not severely tested for the most part, but any time you get a shutout in the NHL, you did the job you had to do—especially, in Rask’s case, after given up six goals against the Sabres two nights before.

I didn’t think Lucic was particularly noticeable, and Marchand’s absence after an injury helped the Leaf cause.  He’s an agitator of the highest magnitude.  I thought Campbell was a constant factor because of his smarts and work ethic.  Of course Seidenberg and Chara eat up an awful lot of minutes, and usually pretty effectively, as they did against the Leafs.  Maybe most importantly their “no-name”guys, like Kelly, are better than most teams’ no-name performers.

If you’re a sentimentalist as a hockey fan, Boston Hall-of-Famer Ray Bourque’s son scoring his first goal as a Bruin would be considered a nice touch.  Long time minor-league forward Jamie Tardiff played his first NHL game for the Beantowners.

Of course, there is always the “big trade” undertone in any Leaf-Bruin encounter these days.  I know some Leaf fans are of the “everybody just move on, the trade is old news” point of view but to me, it is part of the landscape we have to acknowledge.  Hey, as fans, one of the most fun things we do is speculate about prospective deals—and then try to “assess” them after the fact.  How can we pretend the Kessel deal was not huge?  Of course it was—and it still is.  The “principals” in the deal—Kessel for Toronto and the draft picks that turned into Seguin and Doug Hamilton—were on display at the ACC.  All acquitted themselves nicely.  Kessel was a threat much of the night, and you know the Bruins are determined to focus on him because they know just how explosive he is.  Seguin is a more subtle player, perhaps, but does a lot of the things that are not always noticed and demonstrate that he can become a complete player at the NHL level.  Hamilton, at the tender age of 19, is benefitting from playing alongside some veteran defensemen with a lot of moxie, like Chara and Seindenberg.

Those three may not have been difference-makers on this night, but as I alluded to above, every guy on both sides were difference-makers in my mind.  We may not see it on the scoreboard, but there were a lot of goals that weren’t scored on Saturday night at the ACC because of the determined play by both sides.

I know the anti-Kostka-ites (I’m just having fun; I don’t really believe there are anti-Kostka Leaf fans out there, just supporters who think he should play less…) may be frustrated, because he led the team in ice time against the Bruins, with more than 27 minutes.  But hey, the Leafs were within one shot—a fraction of an inch on a couple of occasions—from earning at least a point.  Some nights a loss feels like failure.  For me, this one didn’t.

16 comments:

  1. I don't know Michael. It seemed like a pretty blah night to me. I was impressed with Riemer who had a heck of a game. I liked all of the Leaf dmen tonight. I thought Kostka was good tonight still shouldn't be on the 1st powerplay though. At 18-20 minutes a night I think kostka has a future in the NHL. I was far less impressed with the forwards. They just didn't do enough to fight through the hard checking Bruins. The only dangerous shot tonight was Kessel when he hit the crossbar. Other than that moment I had no sense the leafs were going to score tonight. They had no net presence and it seemed like every weak wrist shot hit Rask square in the logo.

    They played a pretty good game tonight defensively and that is a good learning experience. Hopefully they can build on that and move forward. Heading into the rest of the week I am a little concerned about the amount a goals the Leafs are scoring or not as the case may be. They do seem to be a much more comfortable team on the defense though.

    It is funny how people see different players. You were talking about how the all the Leaf players did something tonight and they did play well defensively. But you mention Lucic not being noticeable, but I saw him as setting up 3-4 grade a scoring chances. He didn't throw the big hit or fight but he made some really nice passes and if it weren't for Riemer he would have had a couple of points. Then again I really like Lucic and so I always see the good and not the bad. With Kostka it is the opposite. I don't see the good plays, but I see the dumb penalty at the end of the game to erase a powerplay. I will admit that so far he deserves to be in the NHL. I still maintain he should be on a lower pairing, but he is an NHL dman.

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  2. All points well made, Willbur. I respect Lucic as well and perhaps under-valued his effort tonight. (I think that's the thing- as with Kessel, the difference between scoring goals and getting assists is not always a reflection of whether you're playing well, but a matter of a fraction of an inch, a lucky break or a miraculous save...)

    I agree that the Leafs struggled to get to the net, or to set up enough legitimate scoring chances. But I thought that, overall, they battled about as much as this roster can against an experienced, fairly physical Bruin side.

    Thanks Willbur. Busy week for the Leafs ahead.

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  3. Your second paragraph has it right Michael. The Leafs as currently constructed aren't good enough. I have hope however. I think that the Leaf brass are looking at this year as a teaching year. Learn Carlye's systems and how he wants them to play the game. I truly believe that any thing the Leafs do this year is just a bonus. Next year when Gardiner is here full time and Rielly is playing and Kadri and Frattin have had a whole year to just play the Leafs are going to be a lot better The Leafs are on the right track. In a couple of years, maybe even next year they could be pretty good.

    I do see light at the end of the tunnel and this time it isn't the train coming down the tracks.

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  4. No question there are some young players that should take a leadership role sooner than later, Willbur, including Gardiner. I think a lot of fans are looking at this season as exactly what you suggest: a bonus year.

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  5. Leaf Fan in OttawaFebruary 3, 2013 at 9:03 AM

    Hi Michael. Have been reading VLM for some time now and do appreciate the open conversation and opinions of you and your followers. To me last night’s game gave me an appreciation for the difference in coaching styles between Randy Carlyle and Ron Wilson. As you noted, Carlyle’s team is concerned about the little things ... but also the ‘big things’. More battles are being won along the boards. To me it is most apparent in our dzone. The Leafs have vastly improved in controlling the puck at the halfboards. Wilson and Carlyle both preached/preach a quick transition game. Wilson’s quick transition often seemed to be a Hail Mary pass whereas Carlyle’s quick transition is more of a ten foot pass to the supprt man and another short pass to the outlet.

    I have read quite a bit recently about Kostka, more specifically about the minutes he plays. To me this speaks to the lack of depth we have on our defence that is capable of playing Carlyle’s system/game. Carlyle is playing Kostka for a reason. All of our D can skate. All of our D can pass and shoot. But which of our D understand ‘Carlyle’s’ game? I’m not saying that playing Kostka 25 plus minutes a game is a good thing or a bad thing. It simply points out the lack of depth the Leaf's currently have on the roster to play Carlyle’s game.

    One player I have been very impressed with is Jay McClement. He seems to read the play very well and is providing the much needed puck possession skills. Keep up the great articles Michael.

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  6. what're your thoughts on the leafs' power-play michael? it's been pretty abysmal. as a team, they have gotten smarter defensively, but these power-play are so disappointing!

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  7. There are similarities in the Wilson/Carlyle approach, as you cite, Leaf Fan in Ottawa. The home run pass was in evidence a lot before, now we usually work the safer exit routes. Both systems are transition-oriented but one is more likely to generate safe results than the other, it seems.

    Puck battle victories are huge in the Carlyle game. That's a tough area to "win" when playing the Bruins, but they gave it an honest effort Saturday night.

    No question McClement has quietly become a solid contributor. He clearly is someone Carlyle relies on and has faith in, and not just for the important penalty-killing responsibilities.

    You make a very good point about Kostka. While so many fans are concerned about his minutes, as I've posted here, there has to be a reason why he is playing so much. Carlyle must see him as a preferred option- at this point. Down the road, we'll see.

    Glad you have started to visit VLM, Leaf Fan in Ottawa. Hope to hear from you again.

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  8. Power plays are funny things. If you look around the league in recent years, most all teams go through periods where they struggle badly with the man advantage, Alex. I know the customary response is to say, "let's jam the front of the net and create traffic so the goalie can't see the puck"...or "let's shoot more and create rebounds...". I'm not enough of an expert to know the answer.

    Some want to see Franson on the PP, and that would make sense to me. Phaneuf rifles the puck but the destination is often useless: the puck is nowhere near the desired location, no teammate can deflect his shots and there are rarely rebounds. So that's the first thing I would do- I would try Franson more regularly, rather than Phaneuf.

    But again, I don't have an answer. At times, van Riemsdyk has been a presence in front of the net, and that needs to happen on a regular basis, too. Thanks Alex.

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  9. great analysis michael... i don't know why the bruins game made me so irritated when the leafs were on the power-play, but i definitely said to myself 'this technique is NOT working.' i think your idea about phaneuf is spot-on... no one's denying his amazing shot, but there's something to be said for precision (especially if your team-mate can redirect the puck, instead of deflecting it with a soon to be broken forearm). ah well... not sure if you'll be watching the super-bowl tonight, but... go 49ers (i don't really care, but my coworker is from san fran).

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  10. Michael,

    Its early in the season, but not so early because of the shortened schedule. There were things to like about last nights game and some things that are less welcome. I think that as a generalization, if we are still talking about Kostka, Komarov, and Kadri, as the best Leaf performances at the end of the year. We have had a terrible year. These are not the players that the team needs to be relying on. Phaneuf and Kessel are playing ok. I don't think that is what we need them to be. They are stars and are being paid like stars, they need to produce. I am getting tired of hearing about chances, and an increased 200 ft game. These two guys specifically have an offensive side to their game that the Leafs need right now. A goal from each of them last night, and the Leafs win. Neither of them have a goal this season. I have said, as have others, that Phaneuf is often a waste from the point on the powerplay, Franson hits the net. He needs the minutes, and Phaneuf could benefit, IMO from a little less time on ice. The switch seems obvious to me.

    Did anyone else notice the apparent hesitation, or caution to the Leafs game last nite? It seemed to me that they were trying to not make mistakes, instead of trying to make plays. I am hoping that Carlyle settles on a third and fourth pair, soon. All this switching sides and partners is frustrating to watch, I would like to hear what the players think.

    Where has Grabovski gone? There is zero consistency from a lot of this team, game to game. It seems somewhat of an effort issue. Sometimes Grabbo really has it in overdirve, last night was not that night. We shall disagree on Komisarek. His inability to play the puck is enough evidence to me that his value to the team is as a 7th or 8th guy on the blueline. There are too many Leafs on the roster that would be just as effective without their stick, as they are with one. That is a sad statement.

    Reimer is playing as I hoped he would. He is proving to me that he is an NHL calibre goalie. This is such a great thing to me. The concussion, neck strain thing, seems a long way behind him today. I am happy for him. A prime time goalie, would be a nice change in Toronto. Here's hoping that we have one.

    I am tiring of the Kostka talk. To me he is an NHL player. Nothing more, nothing less. He deserves to be in the game. This years Tim Brent, or Joey Crabb. Not the next Eric Karrlson, or Kris Letang. New guy McLaren was a non entity last night. I have no idea why they dressed him. A complete and total non factor, except that it gave Cherry something else to ramble nonsensically about. That and the quit celebrating in the NHL. Other players will remember your jubilation, and hate you for it, apparently.

    I can't be the only one who feared for Komorov's life last night when Chara grabbed him by the head. Glad Orr took a run at him as well, would have been happier to see Chara move, or react in any way to having been hit. Glad the decision to let him go was something Murray did and not Burke. Share the boneheaded decisions is my motto. Tomorrow the Canes come to town. Lets hope the Leafs are a little more rambunctious in this one.

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  11. It just seems to me, Doctor Alex, that one of the central concepts behind an effective power play is a) quick puck movement and b) getting shots to the net.

    When it comes to shots from the point, Franson clearly has the ability to get the puck in a timely fashion through traffic- at least forcing saves and rebound opportunities. I'm sure the Leaf coaching staff has considered all kinds of options. That just seems like an easy adjustment, and it would give Dion some rest for his tough five-on-five assignments.

    My serious NFL rooting interest lost three weeks ago, but I will be watching!

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  12. I, too, am slightly baffled by Grabovski, Jim. Don't think it's the new contract, or that he doesn't care or isn't "trying". He's a motivated guy. Just not sure where the production has gone. As with Kessel, as you note, we need these guys to actually score goals. That's a big part of their job description and why they are so handsomely compensated. Yes they will break out, but scoring in bunches is only helpful if it means you win a number of different games. Scoring three times in an 8-1 victory, say, while going without a goal for half a dozen games is not helpful overall.

    Reimer has been good. I certainly don't try to proclaim he is an All-Star, simply that he is doing what a competent NHL goalie should do more often than not. And he's doing that, which is good.

    For me, Kostka will be more than this year's just-passing-through player, but I hear your point. Bottom line is, the coach sees him as his second most valuable defenseman right now. We can debate whether that's a correct assessment (or demonstrates a depth issue on the back line) but he is playing- a lot.

    Yes, Ottawa not keeping Chara in retrospect was a huge mistake. Guy will be a Hall-of-Famer by the time he retires. One of the most imposing players in the game for the last decade. And he works at it- doesn't rest on his laurels. Good for him.

    Thanks Jim. We'll see if the Leafs are a little looser against the 'Canes, and a bit more free-wheeling. I think you're right, I sense they were so pre-occupied with matching up with the Bruins and not getting beat, they forgot they were trying to win...

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  13. I was happy with parts of last nights game. They showed a big improvement from last year's team.

    I'm not too worried about the lack of production from Grabovski. He's playing with McClement who is a defensive specialist. McClement tends to average 30 points a season. I see MacAuthur as a 45-50 point guy. Were Grabo playing with MacArthur or JVR the numbers might be better. When Lupul comes back, I am sure both top two lines do better.

    Randy Calyle basically told us much of the reason why Kostka is on the top line. Gunnarson isn't 100% and it was bad enough that they kept him out of the game. Perhaps it will be Phaneuf and Gunnarson as the top pairing when Carl is again fully healthy.

    Overall the defense wasn't that bad. Komisarek had a good game.

    I am disappointed by the goal. A good team's fourth line should be able to check the opposing third line. This was not a top line vs the 4th line. The replays will show Cody Franson losing his man in front of the net, but Chris Kelly was able to skate the puck in with relative ease and bring it deep. I'll say it again our 4th line needs to be better.

    The acquisition of Frazer McLaren is interesting. I keep hearing these rumours that Colton Orr might not last much beyond 400 games. He has about 5 more games to make it 400 and be eligible for a future NHL pension.

    Did you notice how Carlyle spoke about Frazer McLaren's ability to play the game? I think Orr's days are numbered and in the future and after Lupul and MacArthur get back, the 4th line might be McClement and some other defensive specialist with the Frazer McLaren added in for tough teams.

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  14. I noticed most of the plays you mentioned while watching and noticed another one by McClement where he kept the puck protected in a safe area instead of going for a high risk pass into the middle (that could easily have turned back the other way for an odd man rush)... he just stayed along the boards and put himself between the puck and the man covering him.

    It was one of those competent professional small plays where he demonstrates the 'right thing to do' to those younger guys watching him from the bench... I can see why Carlyle gave him the 'A' when our other guys went down. I really like this guy's smarts, energy and effort. Hope he becomes a long-time Leaf (if that's how he always plays)!

    I was also mildly impressed with the few shifts by McLaren... he appears to have some quickness and speed for a big guy - I hope it wasn't a mirage, cause he could have some impact going forward.

    Thanks for your positive comments on our work-in-progress, Michael, I think that the D-Time of play will balance out when Randy sees all the experienced NHL D-men more fully appropriating and evidencinig his systems (like Kostkas has - already with half a season to work out the kinks in the AHL before anyone else on this roster - hence the 'extra' ice time at this point).

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  15. It's something, eh, the goal may not have stood out as much if it was part of a 6-5 game, for example. But especially in a 1-0 game, the little moments I wrote about seem to matter a ton.

    The Grabovski production may be tied to linemates, but I would still like to see him better overall. as Jim alluded to above.

    Gunner's health perhaps answers one of my questions regarding his play early this season.

    Not sure where Orr stands. We know he is working hard.

    Thanks DP!

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  16. Your comments on McClement are on the money, InTimeFor62. I have to believe Carlyle wants to have players who understand that little things win games at this level. I acknowledge that I was skeptical because the Leafs have been collecting third and fourth liners forever, it feels like, and they all seem quite replaceable to me. Hopefully McClement's game makes him harder to replace.

    And yes, the much-discussed Kosta ice-tine question may sort itself out as our "regulars" return to health and full fitness. Thanks, InTimeFor62.

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