In my previous post, on the heels of a discouraging loss in St. Louise (after a very good effort in a losing cause to the LA Kings) I made a simple statement here. I indicated that I felt strongly that the Leafs were badly in need of not only a “statement” game, but a statement month.
Well, I’m hardly going to go out and buy some confetti and ticker tape for the parade just yet, but the convincing Saturday night win at home against the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks was, in fact, a statement game. (Yes, the Chicago goaltending was not great, but we won 7-3 and could have scored a dozen...)
And it was also, perhaps, a start.
How was it a statement? Well, many Leafers may start by saying that a statement was made (by Nonis/Carlyle/fans?) because the roster was closer to what they have been calling/asking/begging for for several weeks: no Fraser, no Ranger and full throttle ahead for the "kids" like Gardiner and Rielly. Our fourth line (on this night, Bodie, MacLaren and Smith) played sparingly, but everything else was clicking. Youngsters like Peter Holland and Jerry D'Amigo played more and were prominent. Bernier was good enough. We outshot the Hawks. We scored on the power play. D’Amigo picked up a goal and an assist, and that, along with two goals (and almost a third) from Holland, gave the underdog Leafs the crucial secondary scoring that we often talk about here.
They had some jump, some breaks and obviously were able to "finish" on offense. Now, I will readily acknowledge I have seen this movie countless times before in fifty plus years following the Leafs. That is, a struggling Leaf side plays at home against a superior club with a history of success, and for one night at least, the good guys provide the faithful with a peak at what could be—and a bit of hope for the future as well—with an unexpected, decisive victory.
generally desolate ‘80s. We see talent sprinkled throughout the roster—some solid young talent, in fact. (Again, it was that way in the '80s, too. Check out the rosters from the mid and later ’80 Leaf teams. There were some impressive skill names there: Clark, seen at right, Courtnall, Leeman, Thomas, Vaive, Iafrate, etc.). There were some tough guys on those teams, too, just like today, and a few grinders sprinkled throughout the roster. But at the end of the day, the sum of the parts never seems to give or bring the desired results.
But I will say again, it was a statement game against the Hawks, because of the Carlyle roster shuffle (Clarkson was absent too, which no doubt made those not fond of his early season play smirk a bit, I’m guessing), because they beat a very good team on a Saturday night on national television, and because it came at a fairly desperate-feeling time among Leaf faithful. The Leafs told us—and more importantly, themselves—that, for one night at least, they could play with the big boys and come up with a win.
Many of us have acknowledged here that, on any given night this season, the Leaf “glass” can feel very much full—or quite empty. When Kessel is flying and Phaneuf is controlling the back end, when the goalies are on their game and we score on the PP, when van Riemsdyk spends the night parked in the goalie's crease and everyone crashes the night, when Kadri is his cagey self, when our checking lines check and when we look like we care about getting the puck more than the other team, things are, well, pretty swell in Leafworld.
When we play as we did in St. Louis—when our goaltending is suspect, when we are second to the puck most of the night, when the players look like they are mostly just jostling to see who will get out of the dressing room first so they can get a window seat on the plane home, we’re not thinking this is a team that’s going anywhere but the golf course come May.
A win is always a good thing. A win against a really good team is even better. Now, lest anyone misunderstand, the earlier post about a statement game (and a personal thank you to the Leafs for the quick and definitive response; well done) was written very much within the context that what they really needed was not just one good game. It’s not enough to play the skilled, determined, smart hockey that we all want to see (and that they win- unlike the outcome against the Kings, where they actually played a 60-minute game but still lost) once in a while. No, I made it clear, I hope, that I was—and am—talking about a much loftier expectation.
I want to see this team become what they were at times last season, but only much better than that. I want to see them skate, to score in transition and off the rush. I want to see their elite skill on display whenever possible. But I also want to see a team that has a desire to own the puck. I want physical players like Kulemin, Clarkson, et all to hit hard—and consistently, not just when the mood strikes. I want opposition players to feel uncomfortable when they go near our net because they are apt to get whacked.
I want to see our defensemen make smart plays, to rush the puck when there is an opening, but not recklessly so simply because they are young and love to skate with the puck. I want to see that the team truly buy into Carlyle’s much-maligned “system”, embrace it and play it to the hilt. (I don’t believe, by the way, that his system suppresses all of our natural ability, or at least it shouldn’t. It is surely not that repressive an approach. It wasn't on Saturday night. Same system, maybe with small modifications...)
Lately, people have suggested—and I understand this, I really do—that either the system is wrong for the talent the Leafs have, or the talent just isn't there. I’ve looked at the rosters in the Eastern Conference and I still see no reason why the Leafs can’t be among the better teams in the Conference—on paper. And I don’t believe that Carlyle has suddenly forgotten how to coach, or is so out of touch that the game has completely passed him by, whatever his growing legion of critics say. (I am open to opposing arguments and have read many—just not any that convince me that he has be fired now. Those who have followed the Leafs for a while have seen the coach carousel thing before. The grass is always greener...)
We have goaltending (and I won’t even go on, though tempted, to explain in even more detail than before why the two-goalie system will show itself to be a terrible idea before the season is out. I accept the current reality). We have two of the most promising young defensemen in the NHL. We have highly-skilled players like Kessel, Kadri, van Riemsdyk and Lupul (when healthy). We have an experienced leader in Bolland, who should be back by the playoffs. Lest I sound like I’m jumping on some bandwagon, we all know I could just as easily make things sound awfully depressing the next time the Leafs lose a game in disappointing fashion.
My point is: the Leafs looked pretty darn good Saturday against Chicago and were full measure for their win—just as they were full measure for a troubling loss two nights before.
What are these Leafs? Who are they? I still have no clue. I’ll just enjoy a win, and two points. But my real assessment will come in my earlier stated timeline: a month from now. If the win over Chicago proves to have been a launching pad, and the ills that we fans have identified and complained and talked about fade from memory, then we’ll stop hearing about Clarkson being bought out (never going to happen, c’mon), about why this defenseman and that guy should be demoted or traded or that Carlyle should be turfed. Instead we’ll be waxing hopeful about the impending playoffs, and asking ourselves how far will this speedy, talented Leaf team go?
I’m not even going to try to forecast what’s on the horizon. Let’s simply wait, watch and assess it in a sober, honest fashion as the Leafs work through a crucial stretch of games.