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No time to breathe, Game 7 Monday with Leafs playing tall

Friday night’s win in Boston, with some anxious moments, told us something about this particular edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs.  That they could go into hostile territory, down three games to one, and come away with a win was impressive.

That they could follow that up with perhaps an even more impressive all-around effort in Game 6 at the ACC nudged the story line just a little further.  Leaf fans have a reason to ask themselves:  just what are we watching?  Is this the unveiling of something new—a team that has speed, skill, youth and the long elusive ‘team toughness?  And superior netminding to boot?

Is this a mirage?

I say no, it is not.

I have no idea what will happen in Game 7.  But I know this:  we are seeing something unfold that no one predicted, at least not as it pertains to the spring of 2013.  Oh, I well realize that some Leaf pundits have talked about prospects and a potentially bright future, but I have not encountered a Leaf supporter who, before this shortened season got underway, truly believed this team was playoff-bound this season.  And if they did believe such an outcome was possible, surely they acknowledged they felt would the Leafs would be cannon fodder for whoever they played in the first round.

So here we sit.  I won’t try to provide some kind of unique analysis of Game 6, or where this team is at.  I’ll just make a few simple observations, that you may or may not agree with:

  • Kessel does not look like a player who cannot handle playoff pressure.  He is skating just like he does in the regular-season.  He is flying around out there. He could have more goals than he has, sure, but he has scored some awfully timely markers in this series.
  • Grabovski has played with a huge heart this entire series.  I don’t doubt we’d all like to see the guy catch and break (as in a puck going into the net for him) but he has done everything we could have asked him to do in this set-to with the Bruins.
  • Is anyone doubting that Reimer can play?  I mean, as with most goalies, there will be times in the years ahead that he will struggle, and old questions may re-surface, but has he proven to his critics that a) yes, he can play, and that b) he does indeed have fire in his belly—and the temperament to succeed in this market.
  • I have raised questions about Gardiner’s ability to play well enough in his own end.  Like Reimer, he may at some point struggle down the road, but right now, he is certainly addressing any concerns I had about how we would handle the bright lights of playoff hockey.
  • Could we expect more from van Riemsdyk, who yet again was pivotal in getting his big body in front of Rask and distracted Bruin defenseman long enough to allow Kessel to get the puck with time and space to score the game’s all-important second goal Sunday night?
  • I wondered, too, if Colborne would be ready for the type of hockey that is required at this time of year.  In his playoff “debut”, he certainly showed he belonged. (He was on the ice with two minutes to go…)
  • For all the critics, can Carlyle coach:  as I’ve said in this space for a long time, yes, he can.

Of course, games are not won by one or two individuals.  It is about stars, role-players, believing in the “system”—and each other—and overcoming mistakes and supporting one another.  This was a classic team effort.  From Colton Orr to MacArthur to O’Byrne to Kadri and his relentless drive (to Kulemin’s crucial blocked shot in the dying seconds), this was a team, on this night (and through much of this series) that has shown a will to win.

Will.  It’s a small word with a powerful meaning.  Some of you remember that I spoke a few days ago about “will”.  For me, along with talent and goaltending, teams need to have 20 players filled with “will” when playoff time comes.  And right now, the Leafs are showing that trait in spades.

There’s a lot more we can say.  But there is another game to play.  Then we can make some final pronouncements about the series, though this is but a chapter in the ongoing development of this Leaf team.  But I’ll say this: I’d be shocked in the vast majority of Leaf fans are not pleased that, more than just getting into the playoffs, this club is showing pride, discipline, toughness and courage in trying to win a series few that they had a chance to win.

Mistakes may creep back into our game.  Maybe even in Game 7.  We’ll see.  But they’ve shown us what they can do.  And for now, that’s pretty good.


  1. Michael
    Two observations:
    1. The Leafs are playing a very disciplined game and look like a "team" in doing it.

    2. Carlyle has been criticized for his mixing of forward lines and defense pairings throughout the season and early in the playoffs as well. Result is that he has been able to obtain the matchups he wants and to cover for injuries without sacrificing offensive or defensive capability because all the players seem to be confidently familiar with playing with each other. Good luck or good management?

    Regardless, we have been treated so far to real entertainment and have been given real hope for the future - whether this year or next - who knows? We'll see!

  2. Well said, Ed. I would argue that Carlyle (as I've said in this space most of this season) has been experimenting with his roster- partly with an eye to the future and maybe, we could add, with a playoff possibility in mind. He has moved guys around, a lot of young players got their feet wet in the regular season, and they were "ready" when they had their chance in this series. No coach is perfect, but he has matched lines, adjusted the roster as needed as the series has moved along. Thanks Ed.

  3. As I said a few times before - the Leafs are on their way up and the Bruins are on their way down - it's just a matter of time before the Leafs 'slay the giant' and take off into the bright future. Today may be the day.

    Hockey is a game of inches and there is no accounting for 'hockey gods' and it may turn out that they decide to give the old tired Bruins another shot but if will and skill and 'team toughness' mean anything the Leafs should have this. They've managed to swing the momentum big time - they've definitely gotten better as the series progressed and the Bruins have definitely gotten worse.

    They miss Andrew Ference. We miss Fraser and Bozak. But we seem to be winning the 'depth game' - Gardiner has emerged as a game-changer. Joe Colborne did a few nice things out there tonight. MacArthur is on fire. Bruins' defencemen subbing in for Ference, on the other hand, are not coming through. Chara, much like Phaneuf, cannot play well for forty minutes per game night after night and it seems that that is what is expected of him.

    You make a very good point about all the Carlyle's 'experimentation'. One example: I was amazed to see Kadri on the ice killing a penalty with Game on the line in game 6. Carlyle even talked about 'carrots' earlier - letting the guys that come through close games, get a chance at an empty net etc. Carlyle's 'system' seems to be very well planned - get everyone to be able to play in every situation - I don't think he's being stubborn (as some out there seem to think). I think he knows exactly what he's doing. Btw, Kadri finally had a pretty good game I think.

    I'll be praying for the ghost of the seasons past (or game one) to stay away today. Leafs look great right now. If we beat the Bruins we can win the Cup.

    1. We're on the same wave length, leafdreamer. The Bruins and Leafs are headed in different directions, I sense, as well, regardless of the outcome tonight.

  4. I don't think I can add much to this that you haven't already said, or we haven't already discussed in the past. I was absolutely impressed with how the Leafs controlled the tempo throughout most of the third period last night, as opposed to holding on for dear life as they did the last game.

    Nothing can help a team better in a playoff run like a hot goalie, and Reimer is just that. So I will defer any more analysis until after tonight, just be a fan and enjoy the ride. I cannot be disappointed no matter what happens tonight. The Leafs have proven they belong.

    1. Your last sentence is so key, Pete- that the Leafs are finally back in a situation where we will be able to assume they will be in the playoffs every year and that they can compete with the "big boys" is all fans wanted. From there, every team has a shot at a championship. We'll talk after the series.

  5. Michael, no matter what happens tonight, I am proud of this team. They have gone further in this round than I ever expected, and have shown me that they can play with the Big Bad Bruins (and probably anyone else in the East).

    The Bruins have looked totally disinterested the last two games until the final few minutes, and at playoff time that isn't good enough.

    What has even surprised me more is the Leafs play while chasing the puck most of the night after a faceoff. Tenacious is a good word for it.

    I like where they are, and I like where they're going. Even if they don't win tonight, I love this team, and with a couple more pieces I can see them making a serious Cup run in the next few years.

    1. I think you speak for quite a number of Leaf fans, Robert. Few (anyone?) expected a playoff berth, much less a strong first-round performance against a traditional Eastern Conference powerhouse. What's the limit going forward?

  6. At the beginning of this shortened season I had hoped for four things to happen with a young promising team.

    1- That they would stick with Reimer and Scrivens and not trade young assets for Luongo.
    2- That they would develop their young prospects and turn loose some of the less than mediocre veterans who were impeding their progress.
    3- That Carlyle would put in a system where everyone would be responsible defensively.
    4- That they would develop a team toughness aid by new players such as Komarov and Van Riemsdyke.

    Having said this, I was hoping for gradual progress, where players like Kadri, Frattin and Colborne would start to contribute at the NHL level and the team would gradually improve on defense and toughness. Sure the playoffs were hoped for but not expected. I would have been content with gradual improvement in the areas aforementioned.

    Instead we have been presented with a metamorphosis. Our Leafs have become a young fast tough team that is competing on even terms with a big tough veteran Boston team that is essentially intact from their cup win in 2111. It is far beyond what I could have hoped for at this point in time.

    I believe that Randy Carlyle and his coaching staff deserve a Lions share of the credit. I have been disturbed to read many negative comments re: Carlyle on numerous Leaf blogs. They criticize his lineups and castigate him for playing Orr, McLaren, Kostka and O,Byrne. They bring forth numerous statistics to justify their positions. Now I have a great love for statistics. I taught statistics courses for over 20 years but judging a hockey team and especially a coach involves far more than measurable stats.

    This Leaf team has achieved far beyond what even the most optimistic fan could have hoped for. Randy Carlyle should be praised for his coaching, not condemned.

    This has been a wildly successful season, regardless of tonight's outcome. I haven't enjoyed a Leaf season like this one in a decade.

    1. All great points, Pete Cam. When you say "it is beyond" what you could have hoped for, I have to believe you are not alone. Far from it. Thanks for chiming in today.

  7. "...I have not encountered a Leaf supporter who, before this shortened season got underway, truly believed this team was playoff-bound this season. And if they did believe such an outcome was possible, surely they acknowledged they felt would the Leafs would be cannon fodder for whoever they played in the first round."

    I believe I thought they could get into the playoffs this year. I thought the Marlie kids would fill in the holes.

    However, I will admit that I am like a broken clock with my optimism. Give me enough time and at some point I will be right.

    For much of the season, I have been saying that we could give a good team a scare in the first round. We are there. I actually thought we might take Boston in 6 games. More recently, I have said that I thought Joe Colborne would be the next Marlie to make the permanent jump. I'm not sure if you noticed last night but his defensive game is very underrated.

    It feels good to be right.

    My predictions for tonight? It could go either way, but if they get past Boston, they might make it into the third round. They will be playing a equally tired team in the Rangers and Washington. Both of those teams are older than the Leafs.

    1. DP- I know you have been very positive about the future for a long time. Kudos to you for knowing the system and who was on the verge of contributing with the big club.

      As you say, when we (and I include myself!) say and write enough things, we're bound to eventually be right - or wrong! (You may recall my writing a column on that very subject recently.)

      Game 7 should be something. Thanks DP.

  8. Michael, like many I thought the Leafs had a chance for a playoff spot, but would be a battle to get one of the last two spots. Other teams' successes and failures surprised me, and Leafs finished even higher. Kudos to them.

    Going into the playoffs, I really did not know what to expect from the Leafs. Could they rise to the occasion, and to what level? Well we have the answer to that now.

    I'm pleased Gardiner is now back in Carlyle's good graces. As I've mentioned before, all he needed was some playing time, and a chance to learn from his mistakes. The team was so bad in Game 1, that Carlyle decided to give Gardiner a chance in Game 2. Thank heavens for that, or we surely wouldn't be going back to Boston for Game 7 now. Lets try and remember the #FreeGardiner

    Colborne has been used very minimally, and basically just in the last week of the season. As I said previously, Carlyle never gave this kid much opportunity. Again, like Gardiner, you have to give a young player a chance to gain experience and work through their mistakes. In Colborne's case we still don't know what we have, but suddenly are forced to find out because of Bozak's injury. It was just one playoff game, but the guy did a pretty solid job. Personally I wished Carlyle had given Colborne greater opportunities in the regular season, so we'd know what kind of player we truly do have. Guess what..... two centers; Bozak a UFA, and Colborne an RFA. I now which one I'd re-sign, yet I'm basing that on so little game experience.

    Go Leafs Go. The season and playoffs have been a huge success, and a huge building block for going forward.

  9. "But I’ll say this: I’d be shocked in the vast majority of Leaf fans are not pleased that, more than just getting into the playoffs, this club is showing pride, discipline, toughness and courage in trying to win a series few that they had a chance to win."
    Well said, Michael! Many of us saw this year as primarily a stepping stone to next year. If we're getting a peek at what to expect in seasons to come, we can keep wearing those blue and white shades, because the future looks very bright indeed. And no matter what happens tonight, I'm on board with Pete Cam above - this has been a season to treasure.

    1. Thanks Gerund- you, Pete Cam and I represent a bit of the, shall we say, "older" generation of Leaf fans. We like the movie we're seeing now, in part because we have seen similar versions in the good years of the past!

  10. Just so you know I am not blowing smoke...I checked some of my old posts. This one is from December and surprizingly accurate:

    "Do the Maple Leafs have an identity heading into a new season? If not, will one emerge under Carlyle- and what will it be?"

    The Leafs identity is going to change. Some of it will start this season. Kadri and Komorov will be parts of the team. Conolly and Lombardi will eventually go. Kadri and Komorov both agitate. Kadri will compete, he will slash and push back. Komorov will play really hard, finish his checks and have a few fights this year. He already had one down in the AHL. Komorov is also a very good defensive player. Though not a tough guy JVR's size will help the team.

    1. Your response to my question in December rings very true now, DP. Thanks for digging that up. You were on the money.

  11. I'm very happy I was wrong and the Leafs broke the "mental hold" the B's had on them. As everyone here knows, I've said the Bruins held (and they did) a huge psycological advantage over our guys, and we would be lucky to win more than one game.

    That edge seems to be gone, and maybee even on the other side now. Boston could have those "oh no, not again" thoughts. After 2 years of steadily (I'll borrow a line from another great hockey bolgger, Down Goes Brown) stealing Toronto's lunch money, Boston and the hold could be gone.

    This may be way off, but could Grabbo beeing hit often and hard be part of the B's plan? Is it intentional, or do they know something none of the rest of us do? It seems like he's beeing played extra rough purposely.

    Game 7 tonight should be fantastic. With the 4 hour time difference here, I'm looking at another 2:30 AM bedtime, but I won't miss it. Life as a Leafs fan.

    1. I can absolutely understand why you spoke of a psychological advantage, portuguese leaf. But to their credit the Leafs have burst past that issue. I don't think it's a factor any more. The Leafs have demonstrated they can skate with the Bruins, are just as physical, etc.

      You can sleep any time- enjoy; you deserve it, along with all great Leaf supporters!!

  12. Thanks Don (TML_fan). I see what you are saying. Gardiner has played well and Colborne certainly contributed Sunday night.

    I probably look at things a bit differently. I think Carlyle knew what he was doing. There was no room for Colborne. He was better off playing big minutes with the Marlies, and getting a bit of time with the Leafs in case they needed him (which they did last night). Carlyle knew what he had in Gardiner, I believe he just wanted Gardiner to be more responsible in his own zone.

    So it depends on how we choose to look at the picture. Gardiner is healthy and has fresh legs. It's not like the kids (Frattin, too) have not played at all this season. I'm not trying to be a dogmatic Carlyle supporter but I think he gave everyone a shot this season, and kept the door open for the young players to prove themselves. If they failed at times, they got another shot- like Frattin and Gardiner.

    They'll have some roster/signing decisions to make, for sure, but I think they have a fair sense of what to do regarding Colborne and Bozak, based on the make-up of the rest of the roster.

    Thanks Don- good stuff, as always.

  13. I'm operating on the idea this is all gravy. The way last season collapsed, I thought if things went right, they might sneak into a spot, maybe get swept in a first round. When it seemed they couldn't be knocked out of the top 8 in this shortened season, and then Boston was the opponent, I figured BOS in 6, but that this scenario, even a Leafs win, was an upset but not necessarily a big surprise.

    I think the realists know this is not a straight line to a Stanley Cup. And there are things to be very excited about and things to have concerns about. Maybe Randy Carlyle isn't the Jack Adams coach this year... Phaneuf isn't a Norris winner... Maybe Bozak should be allowed to walk...

    But for right now, these are important games in the development of the franchise. The cliches are all there... gotta crawl before you can walk, walk before you can run. The coach and his staff found ways to get enough wins to make the post-season and 3 more to now. Phaneuf has been a good captain and has still gone out 20+ minutes each night, mistakes and all... etc.

    Bottom line, I think the coaches and players have found a way to get things done for the most part, and have seized on this opportunity. Burke gets a lot of credit (but his bluster and bold pronouncements got him booted before the team got this good). But I think the effort, the way the team has decided there's no use wasting a chance to be there, short season or not, the way even the Marlies have progressed as a team... some of us who've been around for a while might start thinking we're seeing the late 1950s and late 1970s again...

  14. Really well said, Mark. I appreciate your second paragraph your subsequent thoughts on how this franchise has progressed. Nothing is certain, we both realize, but there is now a strong foundation in place. Thanks Mark.

  15. For me this series hearkens back to a memory of 20 years ago in Detroit. Leafs were down 2-0 to the emerging powerhouse Wings and had to win 4 of the next 5...who honestly thought they could do it? Here's hoping for a similar result in Boston as the one team achieved on the road in Detroit in 1993...although my heart could do without the OT.

  16. So true, Sean. There are quite a few apt comparisons with that '93 series. Potvin just emerging as a go-to young netminder, some kids and toughness, a no-name defence....