I was almost glad that Colorado scored late in the second period Tuesday night with the Leafs leading 4-0. Why? I guess it crossed my mind that if the Avs saw the game slipping away in the third period—especially in front of their home fans, well, combustible bench Colorado boss Patrick Roy just might decide the third period should be a fisticuff-filled showdown. I don’t enjoy hockey when things get out of hand, especially if one team is trying to send a message—even to a non-Conference opponent.
That never came to pass, however, as the Avs—and young MacKinnon—made sure there would be no free pass for the Leafs once they had (for the second night in succession) built up a significant lead on the road.
In any event, in my last post I asked VLM readers if they thought the Leafs were playing that much differently in the midst of this winning streak than they had when they were struggling through much of the previous two months or so. The views were split, but there was a trend toward the notion that while some old standby themes were still present (requiring superlative goaltending while being outshot), there had been some noticeable recent adjustments as well. This has included the arrival of Gleason and the presence of Holland in the lineup, and a healthy Bozak assuming his place on the first line.
But we have also seen Jake Gardiner begin to put up points at a pace he is capable of. Does anyone remember my pre-season post here that suggested the young rearguard is capable of being a 50-60 point defenseman? He is showing signs -at least when the puck is going in for he and his teammates- that that kind of projection might not be that far-fetched. (That all said, that was a terrible gaffe on the second Colorado goal early in the third period, an awful decision with your team leading by three and all that is required are safe, smart plays…)
But it’s more than Holland, Gleason, Bozak and Gardiner. It’s good breaks, for sure. It’s goaltending, absolutely. It’s also generally improved penalty-killing (and yes, an adjustment in McClement’s deployment) and a re-energized power play. But maybe more than all that, it’s the old adage: confidence goes to your legs. Suddenly, a guy scores a goal and a weight is lifted. He starts to play like he can. The team wins one, then another, and the anxiety that every little mistake will end up in your net eases. You start taking the play to the other team, playing with what I’ll call smart abandon.
And hey, even back checking doesn't seem like such a chore when you feel like it will make a difference in winning.
So whether it is the Leafs playing (finally?) a more complete, all-around team game or Carlyle pulling the strings in a more successful manner, I’m not expert enough to say. But winning beats losing—that much we know.
One name I have not written about much lately (for some time, actually) is Lupul. The shoot-out closer has not quite been the Lupul we have seen, when healthy, most of the previous two seasons. Like most players, if he plays a perimeter game, his productivity diminishes. I’m not sure if he is healthy right now. He certainly is a guy who seems to have a consistent work ethic, but he has yet to really break out this season—at least not since the early days of the campaign. If he does, it would add even more balance to a lineup that is suddenly potent. (I should note that he was, however, out there with McLement and Kulemin, I think it was, to ice the game when Colorado pulled their goalie and the Leafs subsequently made it 5-2 with a goal into the empty net.) He has earned four points over his last three games, so we'll if he can find his mojo in the days ahead.
It was good to see Reimer stand tall again in goal. After a string of very solid play through the first part of the season, he struggled in starts against Detroit and Carolina, though he sat for almost three weeks between those starts. He started to look a bit more like himself as the game against the Sabres last week wore on and I thought he was very much on his game and deserving of a game star for his performance against a rested (and highly skilled) home team Tuesday night.
One little observation: as hopeful as it is to be on a lengthy winning streak, the Leafs will have to get smarter. With three and a half minutes to go, van Riemsdyk tried to take on a defenseman one-on-one at the Colorado blueline with a two-goal lead— when the situation cried for him to simply get the puck into the corner and head to the bench. Instead, he turned the puck over, and the Leafs were suddenly (and unnecessarily) scrambling to defend against a flying Av counter-attack. Plays like that are not what good teams do. Right now, the Leafs are winning, but being unselfish and playing for the team means making the little, ‘no glory’ plays—not just scoring goals and making fancy plays.
I’m likely not alone in thinking Giguerre played awfully well for the Avs in the third period. He’d be the ideal back-up for Bernier right now—a near end-of-career veteran who would be satisfied with a role as a respected back-up. Unfortunately things did not work out when he was here.