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Leafs on their way to becoming what the Bruins are now

If you think you’re improving at anything in life, you often only find out how much you have moved forward by measuring yourself against the best in your field, or at least someone better than yourself.

So, if you’re the Toronto Maple Leafs, you might as well play the best to determine where you are—and where you need to get to become champions some day.

They did that twice in the past week, with mixed results.  We saw some good things, but could not help but notice plenty of flaws, too.

It may feel discouraging for Leaf fans to go through this (losing to the Bruins four times so far this season) but the reality is the Bruins are not only the defending Cup champions, more importantly, they are the best team in the Eastern Conference right now.  Whether they will be in the spring, I have no idea, because things can change a lot in a few months.  (I sure didn’t think at this time last season that a team from the East would win the Cup, yet one did…)  But right now, it feels like the Bruins haven’t lost since Nixon was President and while they can’t keep this up forever, at the moment, they sure are tough to play against.  Toronto is just one of the teams the Bruins have had success against during this hot streak.

I think the important underlying reality is that while the Leafs no doubt have a ways to go (some nights it looks like a long ways…) they are clearly making strides to become the kind of team that the Bruins already are:  a team with speed, physicality and tenacity that is deep pretty much everywhere.  They are deep enough that  young Rask, the guy in goal for them Saturday night, was good enough to be their first-string goalie two seasons ago.  Now, he is barely able to get into a game.  That he is an ex-Leaf draft choice is annoying, but not the story.  The story is that Chiarelli has already done in Boston what Burke is endeavoring to do—build a team that will be playoff-ready for years to come and some day, may just win a championship.

As far as Saturday night’s game went, we could go through the entire game and pinpoint individual errors (or what looked like errors—sometimes we fans blame different players for the same “mistake”…) but it was clear that while the Leafs were in it for two periods, they wilted a bit in the third.  That has been the Bruins’ modus operandi during this run of great play: they battle you, stay close or grab a slim lead and then wear you out in the third. 

The truth is the Bruins are what the Leafs want to be.  The Leafs are getting there and against average goaltending and mediocre teams (and there are a number of those in the East) their skating ability should keep them in good stead most nights, especially when the puck is going in for them.

But when they are facing a team like Boston with more skill, more toughness and more depth, well, we have seen the results so far this season.  That doesn’t mean it will be this way all season, or in the future, but for now, it is what it is.

There are many legitimate reasons for Leaf supporters to feel good right now.  Toronto has a very good young goalie in Reimer, with his best years ahead of him.  They have several young netminders in the system, including Scrivens, who should be able to provide solid insurance in goal in the years ahead.  They have a mobile defense now and while the group is not overly physical, they aren’t shrinking violets, either.

Up front they are very young and have a lot of youngsters, including some like Kadri, down on the farm, who may develop into impact players in the next two to three years.  It takes time.  The Bruins have already built with guys like Lucic and Marchand and Krejci and Chara as their big man on defines.  They also managed to find a needle in a haystack (Thomas).  So they can nurture a youngster like Seguin now because they don’t have to rush him.  He doesn’t play “lead” minutes, or have immense expectations.  He will be a star in two years but he is being allowed to develop nicely.  You need depth (and success, helps, too) to be able to afford to be patient and do things right.

Of course there were things I didn’t like about Saturday night’s game.  I may be wrong but I thought Gunnarsson might have made a move to try to block Boychuk’s shot that gave the Bruins a 3-1 lead in the third.  Franson had his struggles, including one play in the second period, I think it was, when he got caught up ice and the Bruins almost scored. But as I mentioned, we all have our list of nitpicky things that certain guys did wrong.  Against some teams it would be quickly forgotten because the opposition wouldn't take advantange.  But Boston is awfully good right now.  In two weeks they may be struggling, but right now, they aren’t.

The fact that Gardiner is playing so much (26 minutes last night, even more than Phaneuf) suggests not only that he is playing very well, but that Wilson may not be as enamored with the play of some other guys.  (Gunnarsson, for example, only played 16 minutes…)

Hey, Lupul has been, with Kessel, our most valuable offensive player this season, a wonderful surprise.  But even he struggled against the Bruins.  He was a combined minus 6 in the back-to-back games against the Beantowners.  These things happen.

Let's credit Crabb with trying to make a statement when it was 4-1.  With Brown out, not many Leafs can make that kind of statement.

The Leafs can’t—and won’t—get hung up on their struggles against the Bruins.  They have another key Eastern Conference match-up Monday night in New York against another well-coached team.

A little expected adversity and now it’s gut-check time.  That’s OK.  Here’s thinking (hoping?) they welcome it.


  1. If I could hug this post I would. Nice job sir.

  2. Michael you have made some very good points. It looks like we are on the way but still have some work to do.

    My thought after the game last night was that the Leafs had individual players who were, overall, probably equally talented or skilled as the Bruins. Both teams have some very good players and one or two "stars" but Boston has something else. They play like a disciplined TEAM for 60 minutes! They absorb the pressure from their opponents attack and then break out of their zone as quickly as possible and establish an attack of their own. They work hard and don't seem to let up. I think their opponents can find this very discouraging. In this regard I think Chara is a main factor through his leadership and unquestioned ability as a defender. There you have it - Teamwork and Leadership!

    I'm thinking that the Red Wing teams of recent years also had this confidence in their teamwork and a great leader in Yzerman (and now Lidstrom).

    The Leafs have yet to acquire that confident teamwork capability against a strong team like Boston. Boston's past success obviously gives them the confidence to keep on truckin' even though the other team is playing well against them. They know it works and Chara won't let them forget it.

    I wonder what the turning point was for their team that pushed them over the top in this area of confidence in teamwork? Was it the playoffs last year or did it actually happen before that?

    I agree that the Leafs have lots of talented young players in their system now. I'm looking forward to seeing the leadership and teamwork being developed so they can become a tough team to beat too!

  3. Thanks Ed. That's a great post. Your question about precisely when the Bruins found that level of teamwork and confidence that drove their success is a good one. I'm not sure the players necessarily know, but clearly it has happened, though it has taken some time. They've had their own playoff ups and downs in recent years but pushed through and won it all last season. I've been saying that I don't think, in this day and age of parity, that a team that worked so hard to win it once will be able to do it again the next season. Call it the "hangover" or whatever, it's so hard to be at that level for four rounds in the playoffs two years in a row.

    That said, the way they are playing now, they look awfully good. But that can change by springtime. April is a long ways off!

    But you said it, teamwork and confidence can drive a ton of success. If you believe you can win, it's huge.

  4. I concur with Andy.
    It's very comforting to know that Burke is never going to stop improving the team until we have a Cup contender for sure and for a few years, and I'm highly confident we will.
    I think Leaf fans are experiencing the almost unheard of feeling of realizing that not only are we getting better, but we're going to continue to improve year to year until it's in our grasp.

  5. Also, could we stop talking about the damn Bruins for a while now? Particularly Kessel, who is awesome, and Seguin, who should be pretty good.