As I mentioned on Twitter prior to the Bruin game, the Leafs—and their fans—have, as we all know, experienced some crushing defeats over the past 45 years, as we continue to hope (so far in vain) for the day the Leafs can celebrate a championship again. I’ve posted on some of those moments and defeats here before. Game 7 in Boston this past May was one such game that left a lingering taste in the mouths of many Leaf supporters. Because, simply, it was a game where the Bruins looked, midway through that final period, like an utterly lost squad. It was a game the Leafs should have won, full stop.
But we’ve had the discussion before. It’s done. I will say this, however. I mentioned before the playoffs got underway that the Bruins were beatable, and the Leafs series proved that. I did not then—and do not now—have that ‘feeling’ that many Leaflanders used to have simply at the prospect of facing the “Big Bad Bruins”. The Leafs, in my view, are much improved from when we would go into Boston and too often get pushed around on the ice and on the scoreboard in previous seasons. And, frankly, while they are still a good team, the Bruins are not so big or bad anymore.
For me, they are just another capable team in the Eastern Conference that the Leafs have to—and can—beat on their way to achieving success in the Conference and beyond. Saturday night’s game did nothing to alter my thinking. The Leafs could have won that contest. They just didn’t.
I had zero issue with Carlyle sitting young Morgan Rielly against Boston. We can all see that he is a smart, capable and ultra talented defenseman with an extra gear (which will help). Sitting against a Bruin squad known for its ability to apply pressure on a defense was not a shock. I don't know if that was Carlyle’s thinking, or if he just wanted to give the youngster a night (or more) to catch his breath after the excitement of making the big-league roster and playing pretty regularly of late. Rielly is what, a minus 3 on the season? In isolation that number doesn't mean much. He has contributed and played some nice hockey already. The Leafs have made their Reilly decision (i.e. keeping him with the big club), and he’ll be fine. It’s easy to project something pretty special once he gets accustomed to playing against men every night and he has his confidence levels in full gear.
The more interesting question right now is whether the Leafs will release him for junior National team duty in December. I’m guessing this will depend entirely on how healthy our defense corps is and how important he is to the Leaf defensive rotation at that moment. If he is not playing regularly, they may be happy to see him take on big minutes in a leadership role for the Canadian team. We’ll see.
There are so many ‘storylines’ whenever we face the Bruins. Oh, maybe not quite as many as when Seguin was with Boston, but “the trade” certainly cemented the notion of a continuing rivalry for the next while, at least.
- Young Doug Hamilton, a much-ballyhooed part (as the draft turned out) in the Kessel deal, played about 25 minutes for Boston against the Leafs. After being a healthy scratch earlier in the season, he seems poised to take on a bigger role this year with the Beantowners.
- I guess for many Leaf supporters Rask will always be the one that got away. While we were seconds away from exorcising at least some of that feeling this past spring, there he was again Saturday night, stopping 33 Leaf shots in a 3-1 victory. The pain may lessen if Bernier (or could it still be Reimer?) emerges as what Rask might have been here.
- To me, the whole “Kessel playing the Bruins” spotlight has dimmed completely. While he clearly struggled in the early days (seasons?) after the trade, he now plays his game against the Bruins as he does against everyone else. If anything, he is no doubt a bit more pumped up to play Boston. There he was, in the third period, dashing here and there on the power play, dangerous as always. The gorilla is fully off his back.
- The Leafs played with 7 defensemen Friday night against the Devils; back to 6 against Boston. Phaneuf played 27 or so minutes against New Jersey in that overtime game but was back to his more normal (for this season) 25 minutes against the Bruins. I continue to like that Carlyle is trying to minimize the captain’s minutes a bit.
- I was not surprised to see the goalie rotation evolve as it did this past weekend. Reimer lost in the rather shoddy team effort in Vancouver, so Bernier was next up. He drew the offensively challenged Devils and was huge in the shootout win. The coach gave Reimer the opportunity I’m sure the Leaf goalie wanted in the return engagement with the Bruins. Reimer was fine—he looked like he does when he is playing with confidence. I’m not sure I liked the second Bruin goal with Reimer flopping around as he sometimes does, but that’s him. I was just as unenthusiastic about the rest of the penalty-killing unit allowing Bergeron to stand there and knock the puck home.
- As much as I appreciate the different things that Mark Fraser brings to the lineup—traits like grit, heart, character, steadiness—he will never be the most mobile defenseman out there. You win and you lose, I guess.
- I could not write with any real insight about Jerrod Smithson even if I started doing some research. All I know about him is that he was a dependable player on a developing and ultimately pretty darn good Nashville squad under Barry Trotz for many years. What I’ve seen so far in his Leaf ‘debut’ is what I would have expected. He won a key faceoff in the Boston zone Saturday night that generated scoring chances. He won’t be Bolland and we shouldn’t expect that. But if he can play helpful minutes and be that ‘character guy’, for now, that’s fine.
- On that note, I remember penning a piece here a while after the Cliff Fletcher-generated Alex Steen trade. My question at the time was, "Does anyone miss Alexander Steen?".
- Over the years I’ve gone back and forth on the importance of Nikolai Kulemin. I so enjoyed his development arc in his first few seasons here. He seemed not quite on his game at times the last couple of seasons (though others disagree, I realize) and has been hurt much of this year. But if he can be hard on the puck and play a physical game like he is capable of, he can be a factor on this Leaf team, I’m thinking.
- I won’t make a habit of raising Clarkson’s name, because his history tells us we should have modest/reasonable expectations, despite his new contract. That is, he remains a hard-working winger who will go to the tough areas, will fight, bring experience and put up some points. In fairness, the only thing really missing is the points right now (1 assist in 7 games). Fans may never be happy about the money he is getting (or the term) but if he helps this team advance, who will care about his salary or the cap hit? My guess is in two months, he’ll be contributing in the ways we would expect, and all will be well.
- I’m still not certain why we play some of our fourth-line guys 2 minutes a game. The team could maybe just rent that space out to fans that would pay a pretty penny (and fill the organization’s coffers with even more money) to watch a game from that unique perspective, eh? Bodie and McLaren each played two plus minutes against Boston. Every Bruin (excluding a defenseman who was hurt during the game) played 10 minutes, with the exception of Paille, who played between 8 and 9 minutes and Thornton, who still logged more than 7 minutes. Surely a coach has to feel confident that his fourth-line guys can play at some point? Otherwise, bring in other players.
The Leafs now have a record of 11 wins and 6 losses. That could be worse, but it could also be a bit better. We’ve had the out-shot, out-chanced, too many giveaways, "we rely on our goaltenders too much" discussion. But the reality is every team, especially in the East, has flaws. Everyone is covering up warts somewhere. Right now, I see no reason why the Leafs can’t be, as I have said here before, one of the top teams in the Conference. Just take a look at the rosters of the Eastern Conference teams. Are there really any teams that you go, “My God, the Leafs can’t play with those guys”?
I don’t think so. So I will continue to believe that the team will play better hockey in the days ahead, and will still, for the most part, have some strong play between the pipes. Have we played a truly outstanding all-around game yet, from start to finish? I don't think so. Despite that, we are five games above five hundred.
We can score (though not much the past three games), we can kill penalties (though not so much against the Bruins) and we should be tough enough to handle most clubs.
There’s no doubt I see the imperfections but for now, the glass, to me, is half full. But you may feel differently. Let me know.