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Despite the loss, Phaneuf’s absence gives the Leafs young “D” a chance to strut their stuff against the hot Kings…

Not that long ago I posted here that the one Leaf who would be most sorely missed if he was absent from the lineup for any length of time was Dion Phaneuf. Fortunately for Leaf supporters, the captain is only out for a couple of games this week because of the suspension he received in light of his late game hit against the Bruins on Sunday night at the ACC.

But the short-term hole he created may have been an opportunity for other Leafs to step up, as the saying goes.  (It may also give him a much-needed break from the wear and tear of playing major minutes throughout a long NHL season.) Rielly and Gardiner both played extended minutes, often together on the same pairing.   Franson used his extra power-play time to score a key goal on a five-on-three in the second stanza. Generally speaking, the Leafs outshot and seemed to out-chance the Kings, and were tidy enough in their own zone for the most part (until the latter stages of the game) to hold off the western visitors, who just the night before had hammered the Habs in Montreal by a score of 6-0.

I’m not suggesting this will be the Leaf defense -i.e. minus Phaneuf next season- of the future.  (I suppose that could be the case if Nonis and company determined at some point that 7 plus million dollars a season for the next seven years could indeed be used better on other prospective difference-makers in the Leaf lineup.)  But assuming the captain will be here next season and beyond, this was a snapshot that provided some insight into what we have on the blueline should the Leafs go in another direction.  (The Leafs, as we know, have a number of nice looking prospects in the system, but I’m not sure how many, if any, will be ready as early as next season. My guess is if Phaneuf left, the Leafs would be aggressive in free-agency looking for blueliners…)

While I’ve long been an advocate of Rielly getting the opportunity to play with Team Canada, if he is going to stay here, then he needs to play and develop as much as possible without, at the same time, over-extending him at this young age.  Gardiner, as we have discussed here for some time, has all the potential in the world and is, the coach tells us, being asked (like Rielly) to  “simplify” his game.  Whether that’s a word either of these youngsters like or want to hear, it’s fair and does make a lot of sense.  You never want to shut down a young player’s natural instincts or passion for the game, but there is a need for defensemen to ensure their defensive responsibilities to come first. Against the Kings, they both were at their skating best, and played hard and generally smart at both ends of the ice. (I liked seeing Gardiner use his body to rub a King forward out at center ice late in the third period as well.  A decisive play. Reilly was on for the last LA goal, paired with Ranger, but was not a culprit on the play.)

Again, this was an opportunity to see the Leaf defense corps without the guy who usually plays more minutes—and against the best players—every night. That the Leafs held tight for the most part against the recent Cup champions was mildly encouraging.

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The somewhat anticipated match-up between ex-Leaf goaltender Ben Scrivens and former King netminder Jonathan Bernier did not materialize.  Scrivens has had quite a nice season for LA so far, but the Kings played the current hot hand (in the continued absence of Jonathan Quick) in rookie Martin Jones, who had earned two shutouts in a row coming into the Toronto game.  My guess is Bernier didn’t much care who played for the Kings, as long as he got to play against his old team. His save early in the third period after a Lupul turnover was huge at the time. However Bernier and Fraser were caught facing a two-one-one after a Ranger pinch at the other hand, and that LA goal held up until they iced it with a late tally after a somewhat lackadaisical clearing attempt by Bernier—moments after Kessel almost tied the contest.

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The Leafs had a great opportunity to tie things up 2-2 with about 5 minutes to go in the third period when Doughty was caught up ice but a pass did not quite get through to a flying (and wide open) Kessel.

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While I liked a lot about the Leaf effort Wednesday night, at some point soon we will need to see evidence of one of those 'statement game' where the Leafs not only come away with two points, but win decisively against a good team while playing well for 60 minutes.  Could St. Louis, on the road, be the ticket?



19 comments:

  1. Very interesting game...the Leafs were getting the puck out of the zone quicker than I have seen in many games. But somehow getting the puck out more quickly hurt the quality of their offensive chances.

    I would have liked to have seen Lies in for one of Ranger or Fraser.

    It may be just one game, but I don't think we will be totally lost if Phaneuf leaves.

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    1. I had been hoping to see Liles as well (if he had not been hurt, of course), DP. I liked his play in the two previous games and was thinking he may have earned a spot.

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  2. Hi Michael.

    I've always felt Liles is a good safe option, too. I'm surprised he wasn't playing tonight. I like Ranger but he is still making some bad decisions. I don't think Liles would have made the same mistake.

    Too bad they lost this one. Certainly one of their better games. The loss of Phaneuf might be good for the defence. They rely too heavily on him. It's past time for some of them to step up.

    Again, no reward when the Leafs out-shoot the other team. I'll feel better when they play a few of these strong games in a row, win or lose. That's something we haven't seen this year. C.N.

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    1. Agreed, C.N.- time for the Leafs to show they can play determined, smart hockey over a period of weeks- not just once in a while.

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  3. Well, tonight's iteration of the Leafs approximated the one we expected to see this year! It was definitely one of the best games the Leafs have played so far - a full 60 minutes. And we had lots of chances. Kessel and JvR were in it all night. Nice to see Lupul get some looks - hopefully he'll find his scoring touch before long. Kulemin - well, I guess they like his defensive game. I get the feeling the puck weighs about 45 pounds when he gets a chance to score.
    It seems that Carlyle has new-found confidence in Gardener - I think he logged over 25 minutes tonight! And he (and Rielly) looked good. Gardiner's been using the body a bit more this year - something he definitely needs to ramp up.
    For a change, it was our goalie who was a little weak, I thought. The last two goals looked stoppable to me, but maybe I'm being too hard on Bernier.
    Definitely a glass half-full game. But before we get too excited, let's see where we are after Monday!

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    1. This was definitely a lot closer to the effort levels we have been wanting to see, Gerund O'. A game that could easily have gone our way. And yes, we'll see how we feel on Monday...

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  4. Hi Michael.
    We were overdue for a good all round game. But not the result we were hoping for. The Leafs got Leafed. Outshot, outchanced and outplayed their opponents but ran into a goalie who made the bulk of the saves with their offense getting goals when they needed to. Excellent breakouts and transition by skating with the puck out of own zone with crisp passing to our forwards who were in synch with our Dmen most of the night.

    Carlyle may want us to be known as a dominantly physical defensive team like the way a successful Anaheim was during their Cup year. But what is wrong with changing the style to better suit your team being a "rush team". We have the players who can make plays on odd man rushes with the likes of Kessel JVR Lupul Raymond Kadri Reilly and be successful. It was evident tonight that the best defence is a good offense. It was a pleasant change not having to worry about being boxed in our own zone for most of the night. It was an effort we need to see more of on a consistent basis.

    Lupul returned giving notice to another line being offensively dangerous. Driving the net and creating chances all night, he has the ability to make the other players around him better by creating space. However his return didnt come without a glaring turnover that luckily didn't cost us.

    It was a physical affair against Kadri, without the penalties that are usually drawn going his way. I certainly think he has more dangle and creativity to his game that he can offer, much of what we saw last year making dazzling plays using his hockey senses. However it seems Carlye has restricted him in trying to make these creative plays that have a high risk, high reward. Maybe its rightly so but He needs to find out when he can try these plays in good situations so that if and when turnovers do happen, that it would not result in chances going the other way. He is gifted offensively enough to be given the chance of making plays rather than simply shooting it around the boards in the offensive zone.
    Ranger is still having issues with decision making. He has been given too much leniency by the coach even after making poor plays out there. Maybe the coach hopes Ranger can find his game but i simply dont see the same high potential in Ranger that Carlyle sees. Meanwhile, Reilly who is a rookie and can be expected to make mistakes as is part of the learning curve (something that you mentioned before), his mistakes find him a ticket to the pressbox. Carlyles reluctance of accepting a player for all that he can bring reminds me of Kostka last year and Holzer the year before.

    The absence of Phaneuf for this one game should have no indication as to what it would feel like if he was not resigned for the future because teams tend to fing desperation in their game and rally when facing adversity.

    Good sustained pressure like this night, we haven't seen displayed in a while. I hope the loss doesn't impede this small progress in the right direction, even though it is just one game. As much as we like to see the results of a win even after giving up 50 shots, I am glad for a change we played like a team that felt like they deserved to win rather than being lucky to win.

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    1. Hi BlueANDwhite- you've well articulated the internal conflict Carlyle may feel. What he "wants" as opposed to what this particular roster is good at is not necessarily the same!

      Lupul definitely makes a second line more dangerous- instantly.

      Not sure how much influence Carlyle is having on Kadri. The young centre remains a threat most nights, and on many shifts. It's always tough for young players to achieve a balance between offensive creativity and defensive responsibility.

      Teams do tend to rally around short-term absences (like Phaneuf).

      A better game- and a tell-tale game in St.Louis tonight. Thanks BlueANDwhite.

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  5. You can add my name to DP and CN above regarding Liles. I was quite surprised that he was not in the lineup, as well as he's played since his return and with Phaneuf out. Ranger simply has not performed well all season to date, and at the end of the game, I wondered to myself how the game might have turned out differently had Liles played in his place.

    Overall, I'm not disappointed in the game however. They played a sound two-way game for the first time since I can remember, and it was a delight to see them actually control the play, even in the offensive zone, for extended periods of time. When the Kings won it all a couple years ago, they did so by playing the tough 60 minute games that the Leafs to date have shown an inability or an unwillingness to do for more than a period at a time this year. When the Leafs can play, say, five or six games in a row like they did last night, they will be headed in the right direction.

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    1. I believe Liles was hurt near the end of the Boston game, Pete. Otherwise, I'm thinking he would still be in the lineup. I liked his play in the previous two games.

      I agree that we need to see solid play from the Leafs for an extended period of time. They showed last night they are capable. Now they need to keep their foot on the pedal.

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  6. Staying out of the penalty box really helped and I think it was crucial. They had energy and a flow to their game. C.N.

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    1. Agreed, C.N.- your best players aren't stuck to the bench all night...

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  7. A quick tip o' the hat to the Hangout crew - I haven't seen anything "official" about Liles being injured. I tweeted the question to the Star guy covering yesterday's practice, and he said there was no mention of an injury - Liles was good to go. Looks like a scoop!

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    1. Thanks Gerund- I was under the impression he was hurt- I was wrong!

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    2. I was under the impression you were right! And didn't Paul Hendricks mention it too? No matter - love the hangouts!

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  8. Hi Michael,

    I will just say that I was looking forward to a few more Hangout episodes. Get on those MLHS guys to wrangle you some guests, love the Hangout is all.

    So the Leafs play a puck possession game, outshoot the opponent and don't get the win. No one ever said that sports wasn't interesting. I just want to point out, and give the team credit, they played hard for an entire game. As one of the more outspoken critics of this team, on VLM. I am proud of their compete level, last night. That is how the good teams play, not every night, but pretty darn close to every night. The Kings best players are their best players, every game, in every zone. They are hard to play against, and a tough hockey team. So are the Blues. Ken Hitchcock hasn't changed, he demands that the Blues out work their opponents, all the time.

    I am hopeful today, not only that the team can build upon last nights effort, but continue that type of willingness to engage, going forward. If they can do that over the next three games, they won't be embarrassed, and might win a couple. I certainly would have taken that scenario, after the Bruins game. All three of these teams are capable of putting a true beating up on the scoreboard. More efforts like the one put forth last night, and I just might have a lot more positive things to say about our best players.

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  9. Not the outcome we wanted, but a better effort for sure, Jim. They played a strong game without some key players, and that's a hopeful sign.

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  10. Hey Michael,

    The best performance of the season. Good for the team to finally use the skills that they are best at rather than try to mould into a rough and tumble defensive team (which they can try but mostly fail at).

    I don't know if Carlyle made the change himself or his hand was forced but the game felt different - other than the PK.

    Holland played 15+ mins, Rielly playing, McClement on the Fourth line.

    I don't know if all of a sudden randy has moderated his approach to player selection and ice time or is he being asked to make changes by Nonis/management or injuries forcing hand just like playoffs games 2-7.

    Good game, but just like a bad month doesn't mean bad things in the future and single close to 60 mins effort doesn't mean more is to follow.

    I don't pin so much hope for St. Louis - since it is the second of a back to back with travel involved - I am more interested in the games against blackhawks and pens.

    Still say Carlyle should be fired if he cannot reform his ways to get the most out of the players he has at hand at the moment.

    Anon from Scarborough

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    1. Hi Scarborough Anon- Indeed, one "good" game may not necessarily mean a turnaround. Every game is a test for this club right now. We are still not sure what we are.

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