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What happened last night in New Jersey?

In-game momentum means so much in sports, and last night’s game in Jersey saw the momentum swing to the Devils late, and the Leafs couldn’t respond.

It’s easy to say a team has to be able to hold a late lead, but it’s not always that simple. A goal happens and suddenly you’re back on your heels, afraid to make a mistake. You don’t think as clearly. The other team, who maybe had looked listless, has jump in their stride and they’re aggressive, all over the puck. One of the toughest things in sports, I believe, is being the kind of player – and team – that can respond and handle those moments effectively when you’ve lost that elusive momentum.

The Leafs aren’t there right now to be able to handle that sort of thing, it would appear. I watched the reply of the game, and concentrated on the last 15 minutes. I mean, the Leafs were working their tail off and doing all kinds of smart things. It’s not like they were passive. But the 3-2 goal just set the Devils off.

Some post-game thoughts:

• Phaneuf may have shown us the ‘bad Dion’ when he went running around in his own zone late in the game. Ponikarovsky had to take a penalty—leading to the tying goal on the power-play. Plenty of defensemen make that mistake, but Phaneuf will be watched closely by Leaf nation. Everything he does, good and bad, will be scrutinized.

• After the game, Wilson blamed a forward for not coming back and collapsing on the play that led to the Leaf penalty—but where were the defensemen?

• Here’s how the defensive pairings went on the three goals and the late penalty: Beauchemin and Schenn were on for the goal that made it 3-2. Phaneuf and Beauchemin were on when Poni took his penalty, with no defenseman in front of the net. Phaneuf and Beauchemin were on for the tying goal (a 6 on 4 situation, with Brodeur on the bench and the Leafs killing a penalty). Schenn and Gunnarsson were on for the winning goal. Of course, there’s way more going on than just what defensemen are on the ice.

• Credit to Parise; he made a subtle “extra effort” play behind the net towards the corner, when he tipped the puck to a teammate to keep possession, when it looked like the Leafs could clear. That allowed the Devils to tie it up.

• Sometimes clearing the puck out of your own zone is no big deal. But late in the game, when you’re hanging on, and the other team is desperate, it’s not so simple. The Leafs had chances to clear at various points late in the game—Beauchemin and Stempniak come to mind—but just couldn’t get the puck past the blueline.

• It would appear that even with Phaneuf, the Leafs don’t really have a “shut-down” defensive pair that Wilson feels comfortable turning to.

• This raises the question: who of Beauchemin, Phaneuf, Kaberle, Gunnarson and Schenn are—or should be—the shut-down defensemen?

• Kaberle played 15 minutes last night. I might have missed something…was he hurt at the end of the game? If not, what does this mean? Gunnarson and Schenn played more, and were on the ice when it was 3-3. Is that because they are better in the coach’s mind than Kaberle? Is it about winning now, or playing for the future?

• I keep thinking Gustavsson will be better next year. It’s clear he has ability. Sometimes you just need your goalie to make a save, and last night was an example where that didn’t happen.

• Mitchell had a chance to fill a guy in at one point on the fore check, in the Devils zone. He turned away. At least eliminate the guy. Must drive coaches crazy when a guy with size doesn’t do the little things that you need to do to have an impact.

• I just don’t know where the offense will come from for this team next season. Much can change, of course—trades, free agents, etc. But while I like some individual forwards—Kessel and Kulemin come to mind—there isn’t a forward line right now that the other team has to worry about, much less two such lines. While most of the forwards work pretty hard, since the Leafs also don’t have a top-end “shut-down” third-line, there’s a lot to fix between now and next season.

• Where does coaching fit, if at all, when games like last night unfold as they did? Wilson is not responsible for his limited roster options, to be sure. But I do wonder if there was an opportunity to call a time out, some time after the 3-2 goal, to review tactics and assignments and to try slow the Devils’ momentum. I say this because you could just feel the Leafs would be pressing, in light of their history this season.

• I’m trying to remember if Wilson, in his coaching career, has had to work with this kind of line-up. In Washington, Anaheim and San Jose he generally had talented teams, as I recall.

• Yes, the Devils looked inspired in the last three minutes, after they scored to make it 3-2. But they aren’t same Devils they were many years in the past. I saw un-characteristic giveaways from New Jersey last night. I just don’t see them getting out of the Eastern Conference—maybe not out of the first round. If that’s the case this spring, they gave up a lot for a rental in Kovalchuk.

• It was nice to see players so happy for him when Wallin scored. It’s usually a good sign that a player is well-thought of by his teammates.

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