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Suddenly, the Leafs can’t lose…

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.

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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.

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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.

19 comments:

  1. When you're hot, you're hot - as the old Jerry Reed song said - and our first line is sizzling right now. I lost count of the number of smart plays and good chances they had. I've liked Bozak as our centre on that line for a couple of years now, and he certainly seems to be the puzzle piece that makes that line so dangerous.
    Giguere did play well - but I have to think it's the Patrick Roy influence that has revivified him. He didn't look so good in his last year with the Leafs. Reimer still looks unsure of himself, to my eyes. I hope his confidence, which seems to have eroded somewhat, will be bolstered by the win tonight.
    Gardiner's gaffe was egregious on the second goal - he does seem to be a slow learner, doesn't he? - but if his offensive contributions keep up, at least it's a wash. As you mentioned with the JvR play, it was such a simple thing Jake had to do to get the puck out... And it reinforces my dislike of the blind back pass/drop pass. Almost always comes back to bite you.
    I'm with you on Lupul this year. For whatever reason, it seems that he and Kadri just aren't clicking. In fact, although Kadri is picking his game up, it seemed Holland was the better fit on the second line, didn't it? We'll definitely need another line to start scoring.
    The elephant in the room at the moment is the lack of impact Clarkson's absence has had on the team. I know some would even say it's one of the reasons we've started winning. Although that's unjustified, and his game also seemed to be getting better just before he was put on the IR, it's difficult not to notice that he hasn't really been missed. So far, at least!
    Am I the only one who doesn't feel any Leaf lead is safe? Even though tonight's win was well-deserved, didn't it feel like it was about to slip away? It did to me. Despite our winning streak, I still don't feel we're a team you can count on to close a game out. If the team gets to the point where I feel confident they can consistently protect a lead, the currently pretty much half-full O'Malley glass might have some foam reaching the top. The win streak is great, but I'm still unsure of who we really are.

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    1. You've covered the bases, Gerund O'. On the one point: if Kadri and Lupul could click (with Clarkson upon his return), wouldn't that be a nice line? All three are capable of being impact players in their own way.

      I think it's virtually impossible for Reimer to feel or be confident given the obvious slight shown him by the coaching staff (and the organization). When you play once every week or two, it's kind of tough to have your game going, eh? I'm surprised he has done as well as he has most nights this season.

      Holding on to leads is an issue, yes. We seem to find it difficult to play hard for 60 minutes. Maybe we need a rule change to 30 minute games. Thanks Gerund!

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    2. So I read through the blog my mind was spinning like an apileptic hamster on speed in his wheel. Then I read Gerund's reply and my hamster fell off his wheel. So in reply... yeah..what Gerund said hehe :)

      I would add I agree on Gardiner. Talent and skill galore but still makes "dumb" plays. Is it limited hockey sense or just youthful mistakes like the commentators said to help cover for him. He isn't a kid anymore. He is nearing the start of "middle age" for a professional hockey defenseman. He is 23 years old and Reilly makes less "dumb" plays at 19 years old. Reillys mistakes I chaulk up more to youthful mistakes. I like Jake but he better learn and better learn quickly even if you generate 1 to 2 goals a game that 1 goal gaffe you give up in the same game is going to hurt you a lot.

      Clarkson. Well now, isn't this quite the condnundrum RC and Nonis have themselves. Anthony Petrielli posted on Twitter today that Toronto is 16-16-4 with Clarkson, and 11-4-1 without him. He was playing a bit better for 4-5 games prior to his latest injury but still. Where do you slot him now and who do you bump to make that space??

      Leafs leads: I was chatting with a friend last night. Last year I felt fairly safe with a 1 goal lead. 2 was a given. This year a 3 goal lead I am still on the edge of my seat. Is all of this stem within the team, and the fan base perspective, because of that one game that shall not be named?? It had to have a massive mental hit to the players that went through and although they all say they have moved on subconsciously they may be making decisions with a lead they didn't last year.

      Reimer: Same ole Reims. Plays the position looking like an octopus falling out of a tree. Rebounds bounce off him like he was a super ball and his glove acts like a trampoline. but he makes saves..period. Battles like it was life and death on every play. His teamates obviously love the guy and play for him. Bernier will be the better steadier goalie long term but how can you not cheer for Reimer to do well??

      Good blog as usual Michael.. and Gerund..quit reading my mind. It is starting to get spooky:)))))

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    3. ou raise an interesting point about the Leafs playing with a lead, and the possible link to Game 7 last spring. Those things can linger, as much as an athlete will say they put it behind them. So as you suggest, subconsciously players may make plays at times they would not normally make, fearing giving up a lead.

      I'll keep saying Clarkson should be fine. Can't do anything about the money. If he shows he can have an impact when it counts (and let's face it, that's playoffs, nothing else really matters) no one will care about the salary cap hit.

      I love Reimer. I won't say any more. I'll take blood and guts over technique any day. I want a guy to go to battle with.

      And hey, Pep, maybe you and Gerund are related!? Long lost Leaf cousins. Take care.

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  2. I liked this effort, Michael.

    I didn't expect a win, playing the 2nd of a back to back, in high altitude against such a strong team. What I saw was the Leaf forwards swinging back into their zone to support their defense as they brought the puck out, better second player support to take the puck after a hit and an amazing and determined effort throughout the game by, of all people, Troy Bodie. (I questioned the decision to put him on the third line). I didn't check his minutes but he certainly had an impact when he was on the ice.

    Kessel seemed to be everywhere and Reimer surprised a few with his strong game. I've always thought that the best defense is a strong offense and we saw that tonight. Some tiring in the third was understandable but they kept fighting for the win. I was just happy for the points against the Coyotes but I really enjoyed this game. C.N.

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    1. Thanks C.N.- fun game. A little tense in the third, but the Leafs have a way of making things more entertaining than they need to be!

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  3. I think the biggest difference is the Leafs have found ways to get the puck into open space through their own zone and the neutral zone. For a while there it had seemed as though every opponent had figured the Leafs out, and easily shut the door on them every time they tried moving up ice. I'm no expert and can't say for sure what they're doing different. I have noticed the defensemen, especially the speedy youngsters Gardiner and Rielly, seem to have a green light to skate all the way up ice. Maybe that's what's keeping opponents honest and not cramming up the neutral zone on us.

    With the extra space created, Kessel had countless open streaks to the net. Not that you expect every one to go in, but with the right luck he could have had a five goal night. For all the detractors on Bozak, and I have counted myself among them at times, they have all the chemistry in the world. It goes far beyond being buddies and roommates, it shows on the ice and maybe that's why the team extended Bozak.

    Conversely, is there that much of a lack of chemistry on the second line? In spite of showing up on the score sheet the past couple games, they had a prolonged dry spell there, and I have noticed that Kadri and Lupul have tried to do far too much by themselves in the offensive zone. Hot and cold streaks do happen, I'm just glad that the first line has picked up the pace at the right time here while the second line has struggled some.

    I had the same thought as you, Michael, when Colorado scored their first goal, but mostly because the Leafs probably did need a reminder that there was plenty of game left and they don't need to sit back and let the opponent back in the game, same as the night before. Gardiner does need to play smarter than that, but I always preach patience with young developing players. For all the trade talk involving him and Kadri, I would hate to see the Leafs give up too early on a player who is still learning his game beyond the obvious raw skill. I am willing to concede the occasional goal against on a giveaway or bad penalty if it helps them learn.

    Funny that Gerund O mentioned Clarkson in his post here. It's hard to believe that I sat through two games in two nights and Clarkson's name never even crossed my mind once. Ouch.

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    1. The Leafs have played some good teams and had success of late, so you may be right that they have found a way to move the puck with more authority through the neutral zone, Pete. Whether it's Rielly and Gardiner doing it with their feet or finding guys in motion at the right time with good outlet passes, they are a lot faster when they can move the puck. Even fast teams look slow when they can't move the puck.

      I'm a big believer in being patient with young defensemen, too. I've talked about that, well, it feels like forever, here and elsewhere. So I'm with you on Gardiner. That said, there is a time for risky play, and that was not one of them. (In the same breath, it's not only "young defensemen" who make mistakes. Veterans around the league make plenty of miscues, too.)

      I keep believing Clarkson will find his stride, his comfort zone and his confidence at some point. If that happens,all the earlier frustrations in Leafworld will melt away. But we will need to see some consistent production to go along with his ability to play tough. Thanks Pete.

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    2. Like you I haven;t given up on Clarkson.....Yet. I would like to see what really happens in playoff if we make it.

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  4. Will just add that I'm glad to see Randy using his time-outs when needed. That's something that we weren't seeing before. C.

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    1. I think he learned it from game 7 of last year...;)

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  5. Hi Michael,

    I agree totally with your first paragraph about the late goal but for different reason in that it should remind them that consistent winning and championship teams plays complete 60 minutes. Not saying that they are championship caliber team during this streak but they have played better simply of your noted confidence. That said, had this game been during when the team was fragile, I believe they would have cough up the 4 goals lead and possibly lost the game. There were stretches of time in the third that they were reverting back to very bad habits and poor decision making. IMO, the effort by Phaneuf on the late goal in the second started it. Maybe he was "gassed" but that half effort attempt (or appear to be) was a very bad display of effort. I am glad they've won but not at all satisfy by the complete game play. It's like eating McDonalds, sure it fills you up but you know it's bad for you and is not really satisfied.

    Observations:

    Although I am an advocate of tough and sometime needed rock em sock em hockey for the mere purpose of team building. I don't know why Carlyle consistently dress Orr. The Orr of last year is no where to be found. He is not intimidating at all this year and cannot trusted in any defensive or safe minutes scenario. This creates elevated minutes for everyone on the team and as last night illustrated again, they became a 3 line team and were obviously (even noted by the Colorado commentator noted ) that they running on empty by the third. I cannot for the life of me see why D'amigo, Ahston and Brodie cannot be used more effectively. These three have been IMO very impressively fast and physical given their limited play and should be relied upon.

    As well as Gardiner has been praised by recent points achieving plays, he still make very often stupid silly, bad, awful, boneheaded, etc mistakes. So far it hasn't cost us games aside from the stats sheet but this has to stop down the stretch.

    Lupul has not been a concern to me as he is always a gamer and you can see the efforts. Sometimes, it just not going to go your way for a while but it eventually will if you stick with it.

    Riemer needs to play more. He is was not that good on both goals since he is reverting to his old drop down, cover the lower half, hope it hits me style. He was not like that when he was playing more. I think he is just not fully comfortable after long stretches.

    Thanks for the blog

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    1. Appreciate your post today, Lukas. I'm still perplexed by the lack of use of a young, energetic fourth line. But I'm not a coach.

      As for Reimer, I agree he is still not himself but as I've said, no goalie would be given how he has been handled this season.

      And yes, if Lupul and Clarkson catch some breaks down the stretch, we all may be singing a different tune in a few weeks. Thanks Lukas.

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  6. Michael
    I agree with the observations above but would like to add one other thought I had as the game developed. It was mentioned that there is still a concern with the Leafs ability to protect a lead late in the game. In my view there was noticeable improvement, perhaps for the first time, in the Phoenix game where they did have some stumbles but responded quite well after all. Their "compete" was more evident to me in that game as they responded to the Coyote pressure. Last night, I felt the stumbles were fewer after the Avs got the second goal. In fact the Leafs response struck me as much improved and there seemed to be a confidence in doing so and in moving the play to the opponents end of the rink. As I said, still a few stumbles but generally a more determined response. As you mentioned, success breeds success and I for one was pleased to see the improvement. Not there yet, perhaps, but better and something to build on!

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    1. They bent but did not break these last two games, Ed, when it came to playing with a lead. That was encouraging for sure.

      Confidence begats confidence, so they should feel good heading into their next game. Thanks for visiting, Ed.

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  7. Michael, excellent musings to balance out the concerns expressed during the post-Bolland injury slumping... kinda' wonder if his work ethic and return to the locker room are having an impact in recent days.

    I'm thinking of a young, post-college Bozak getting his feet wet in the NHL and just starting to come into his own (whose injury absence made the heart grow fonder as we begin to realize the contribution he quietly makes), when I look at a 23 year old Gardiner... he's not as hockey smart as Bozak, but his skills are potentially 'through the roof'! I hope we're willing to watch him grow into our own superstar rather than switch him out for someone else that has reached maturity just a little sooner.

    It sure seemed like Bozak had the respect of summertime Colorado training buddies Stastny and Duchene in a local news story I saw yesterday... in essence, they say he does a lot of things very well(that a lot of people don't see) and has a high hockey IQ. And a lot of people would like to switch him out with Stastny (who would cost more and doesn't have that chemistry with Kessel), who I see as very similar... Duchene, however, might give pause for consideration!

    I think Kessel can do well with others, but seems quietly cerebral about his game and plays best when able to focus on his strengths, knowing that he can trust Bozak to balance out the line.

    Lupul seems a bit closer to his game since playing more on the left side in the last couple games (having Raymond moved to the 3rd) and I'm hopeful that any lingering issues from earlier injuries are soon to be replaced by a 'bump' in his production.

    I felt there was no real chemistry between Lupul and Clarkson OR Kadri and Clarkson. I hope Kulemin sticks for a while and Clarkson fits with Bolland upon their returns. Clarkson will prove his mettle when we see him in the playoffs, however, if he doesn't raise his impact in that setting, it should be noted that his contract has paid signing bonuses at the beginning of each season, allowing the Leafs to absorb some significant cost, before trading him (should that alternative become a necessity). AND, I think a team like Calgary or Edmonton might be quick to enquire.

    That said, I hope he 'comes into his own' soon and makes the speculation moot!

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    1. Yes, the Bozak critique begins to just become noise after a while. I think sometimes fans/Leaf observers adopt a position (often based on some kind of statistical assessment) and stay with the critique no matter what the eyes are actually telling those who follow the team. If Bozak "improves" in the years ahead, all the better. For now, he is a competitive player who seems to make his linemates better and has some defensive awareness. He can win face-offs and kill penalties. Not sure we can ask a whole lot more. And frankly, I'm don't know that any other centre on the team this season or last (including Bolland, when healthy) brings the all-around game Bozak does.

      Gardiner will excel in time. Patience is needed, as others have said here. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have things to deal with in his game. A defensemen's job is, it seems to be, first and foremost to 'do no harm'.

      Thanks InTimeFor62- good stuff, as always.

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  8. Hi Michael,

    It's been a great string of games here to make up the lost ground in the East. What's different you ask? Well, as usual, it's a combination of tangible and intangible, known and unknown factors, I'm sure. One thing that stands out in the last several games to me is the quality of puck support in the offensive zone. Leafs are actually winning one-on-one battles along the boards and retrieving pucks. Consequently, the forwards are able to set up plays and involve our offensively talented defensemen more often.

    The Leafs have been missing offensive contributions from the D for most of this season, but they are suddenly chipping in quite a bit, thanks in part to the forward puck support mentioned above. Also, Gleason has fit in nicely, replacing a lot of what Fraser brought last year next to Franson (not so much the fighting, but solid positional play and net presence that maybe helps Franson feel comfortable to join the rush). And Gardiner and Rielly are pretty fun to watch play pass-around in the neutral and offensive zones (yes, they are not perfect in their own zone, but I'll take them on my team any day!).

    I think the seeming (relative) stability on D -- partly due to a new commitment to driving the play to the opposition's end -- has given the team some more confidence, and, dare I say, a hint of team identity..? If the Leafs keep up their recent style of play, they are a hard-rushing team with deep, potent scoring (from the D-out), with top-rate goaltending and special teams (as long as the PK keeps improving toward what it had been earlier this season and last year). As a few people have mentioned, it would be great if a Lupul-Kadri-Clarkson line made some waves when Clarkson returns. That would free up more scoring talent for the third and fourth lines (Kulemin, Holland, Raymond, Ashton, plus D'Amigo and Bolland some day...).

    I've said it before, but I still believe all the back-to-back games this year due to the Olympics work for the Leafs, since we can count on either goalie to "give the team a chance to win" on any given night (see the Colorado game). You know I love Reimer too, but nothing short of a shutout or an illness/injury to Bernier will get him consecutive starts at this point, either of which could happen.

    Montreal lost, so Leafs still have the same amount of points. Sure, MTL has two games in hand, but I'm pleased to see the Leafs playing more like the way I had anticipated they would this season... for the time being at least!

    Go Leafs!

    Matt

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    1. As is almost always the case, it's difficult to determine what comes first, better play through working harder, or confidence- which frees you up to play closer to your best. When the Leafs win, it's easier, as a fan, to look at the same names that two weeks ago we thought were lacking and feel pretty good about them.

      I think most of us have said along along that this team, in the Eastern Conference, should be very, very competitive. They can skate, move the puck, make plays and while flawed (like all teams), that combined with goaltending can move the needle. Whether this lasts- and we'll be feeling this way in a month - well, that's the fun of following a team, I guess. Thanks Matt.

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