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.